The Root of the Problem

The what's missing in the debate over U.S. vs. U.N. control of the Net


The Internet, in John Perry Barlow's famously purple description, is a happy anarchy "naturally independent" of government; it is an "act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions." That was always, alas, a slightly starry-eyed description of the Pentagon's most precocious baby, which is why a growing conflict over who will manage the Net's basic virtual infrastructure will take center stage next month in Tunis, Tunisia, at the second meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society, where some are proposing that the United Nations take the helm.

At the level of content—the myriad websites, audio streams, and e-mails produced by millions of individuals, companies, and virtual communities—Barlow's description is not far off. And though the Internet's physical infrastructure or "backbone" is owned by a far smaller number of commercial firms, they've largely treated the content level with a policy of benevolent neglect.

The Internet's basic virtual infrastructure, however, is in the hands of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, better known by the feel-good acronym ICANN. When you point your browser to "," the network knows that's just what friends call the site: In the more formal world of machines, it goes by ICANN is in charge of allocating blocks of those numerical strings, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, and maintaining the "root lists" that tell your computer where to start looking to link up names with numbers.

ICANN took over these tasks in 1998 when the U.S. government, in a shocking display of sensible self-restraint, recognized that it was in the best interests of cyberspace that they not be tied too tightly to any one government. But there's growing international dissatisfaction with that arrangement. The Department of Commerce can still, in principle, veto ICANN decisions. And even when it doesn't exercise that power formally, international observers can hardly be faulted for worrying that American politics is influencing Net policy.

For example, ICANN recently halted the rollout of a new .xxx domain for adult Web sites after the Bush administration, under pressure from socially conservative groups like Focus on the Family, objected.

Backlash against proposals to end ICANN's monopoly has been no less robust. It's met stiff opposition from legislators like Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

It's not hard to see why the U.N.ternet lacks fans in the U.S. The organization has been doing what President Bush might call a "heck of a job" at such diverse tasks as peacekeeping and administering peacekeeping and administering oil for food aid programs. And an organization where Libya can be elected to chair a human rights commission may not seem the ideal oversight entity for what is probably the most free and open medium the world has ever seen.

Some concerns, admittedly, are overblown. The ability of a China or an Iran to exercise direct censorship through an ICANN-like entity would actually be fairly constrained. The authority of the root servers, after all, is a kind of moral authority—they work because people agree to use them as a common point of reference. In a worst-case scenario, truly onerous restrictions would probably prompt the reemergence of alternative root nameservers for politically disfavored sites and domains.

More realistic is the threat of the slow accretion of minor rules, restrictions, and taxes. A bureaucracy can strangle by accident as effectively as many despotisms manage to do on purpose.

Still, if the idea of an Internet managed by the U.N.—or (more likely) some other body controlled by world governments—is unappealing, this might be a good time to ask whether an ICANN under the watchful eye of the U.S. Department of Commerce is so much better. The U.N. shouldn't control the Net's virtual infrastructure—but then, why should the U.S.?

There's a certain appeal to the simple "it's our ball" argument. A global computer network certainly might have looked very different: The French Minitel rather than the Pentagon's ARPANET could have been the fountainhead from which the world's greatest porn repository sprang. In a parallel universe not too far away, we're probably sending our courriel électronique over x.25 instead of TCP/IP, and taking great care to include some minimum proportion of Gérard Depardieu flicks in our pirated BitTorrent movie downloads. But that didn't happen—and why (some ask) should the U.S. give up its stake in the Net any more readily than we might expect France would have?

But in many ways, that argument runs contrary to the spirit of the Net. The Internet grew out of ARPANET precisely because, at key points, the government opted for openness over control. As grumbles about the last vestiges of U.S. government involvement with the Internet's master address book grow louder, perhaps it's time to sever the last strands of digital umbilical cord.

As Syracuse University's Milton Mueller, a professor of information studies and author of Ruling the Root, noted in a post to the Politech mailing list, the real problem we face is that "the debate has devolved to a choice between 'US control' versus 'UN control.'" Yet, Mueller observes, there are other options:

What seems to have been lost in the shuffle is the idea of distributed, cooperative control that involves individuals, technical and academic groups, Internet businesses and limited, lawful interactions with governments. The idea that nation-states should not have the ability to arbitrarily intervene in the Internet's operation whenever they feel like it, but should be bound by clear, negotiated constitutional principles, has been crowded out of the debate.

The Internet may have grown out of a government project, but it has never really been a creature of government. Why, then, is the debate over the Net's future being framed as a contest between whether one government or a group of them will get to breathe down the neck of ICANN or its successor organization? We have an opportunity now to put the root in the hands of an organization that is not international—in the sense of being "between nations," though still defined by them—but truly global, responsible to the citizens and stakeholders of the world rather than its governments.

John Barlow's vision of the Internet came from a "Declaration of Independence" for cyberspace, in which he insisted to the world's governments: "We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies." Perhaps he was too sanguine. Or perhaps he was merely premature.