Given its pace, the history of the Internet has to be written as it unfolds. Wait too long and what once seemed like important technical issues become as quaint as the relative merits of various cuneiform styli.
For Syracuse University's Milton Mueller, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is too important not to have a bio, starting now. For much of the 1990s, a government contractor, Network Solutions Inc., assigned Internet domain names ending in .com, .net, and .org. Then as now, registrants paid for the domain names, which they must renew periodically. In 1998, amid squabbles over fees, the U.S. Commerce Department chartered ICANN as a non-governmental nonprofit to oversee the task. The goal was the worthy one of "industry self-regulation."
In the December 1999 issue of Info, Mueller argues that ICANN has been a failure that has only increased government oversight of the Net. Most important, he says, ICANN never created a real system of property rights for domain names, one in which registrants would actually own their domain names outright, rather than effectively lease them.
Reason Express writer Jeff A. Taylor spoke to Mueller recently by phone.
Q: You write that "the `self-regulatory regime' being constructed by ICANN is actually far more centralized and controlling in nature than the pre-ICANN Internet," with the Commerce Department announcing "its intention to retain `policy authority'" over domain names indefinitely. A pretty bleak outcome for a process that was supposed to get the government out of the picture and let markets work. What went wrong?
A: If the Commerce Department had conceived of [the switch from Network Solutions to ICANN] as a true privatization, with the government transferring assets from itself to the private sector, it should have created a property rights structure that would've allowed private players to compete. What it did instead was simply transfer government's role to an organization that it called `private.'
Q: The ICANN saga involves a very basic control over an entire new medium of communication and business: Who gets what domain name. How important is that?
A: Given the way they are handling domain names and trademark issues, there is a lot at stake. The process that created ICANN had a huge input from groups like WIPO [the World Intellectual Property Organization, a quasi-governmental body created by international treaty]. It would have been better to let ICANN simply handle the technical specifications for the Internet and let the courts handle cases involving trademark disputes and similar issues. Then there would've been a lot less at stake. What you have now is an international regime of trademark protection at the very core of how the Internet functions.