Should ICANN Open up?

This week, The Register ran a story on how the US supposedly had given up its ‘control’ over ICANN. ICANN, the body which assigns IP addresses and domain names worldwide, currently falls under the US Commerce Department via a contractual agreement; this means the US government can control ICANN. El Reg claimed the US had given up this control; Ars was quick to respond, stating that “the existing arrangement was likely to continue, at least for another year.” Since the US had stated that it wanted to fully privatise ICANN by 2000, we’ll have to wait and see what ICANN looks like in a year. In the meantime, do we really want the US to open up ICANN?Note: This is this week’s Sunday Eve Column.

That question is not as black and white as some paint it to be. The most often heard argument among the proponents of US control is that of history: the situation has been this way for years, and since the internet is flourishing, isn’t the US doing a good job at controlling it?

Partially, yes. The US has indeed ensured that up until now, the internet has remained an open place, where everyone can say or do whatever it wants. The US should be commended for doing that. However, the problem with governmental control is that a government is not supported by 100% of a country’s population, let alone that of the entire planet– and the entire planet is affected by ICANN’s decisions.

The whole .xxx domain saga has showed us that the US government exerts quite a bit of control over the direction of ICANN. ICANN had approved a plan to setup the .xxx domain in June 2005, but after concerns raised by the US government over the apparent ‘legitimisation’ of the adult industry, ICANN reversed that decision on May 10th of this year. And that is just plain scary, to me.

The usefulness of the .xxx domain is highly debatable. I too think it would do nor good nor harm to the internet. However, that is completely besides the point of the US controlling the internet. The fact of the matter is that the US government, inspired by its own personal feelings towards the adult industry, has influenced a decision making process that should in fact be free of governmental control. Remember, to illustrate the extent of control the US government has over ICANN, that the decision, as well as the plans to execute it, had already been made. Please note that this is not about the outcome of the decision itself; I would be equally worried if it had been the other way around (the US government reversing a decision by ICANN to not create a .xxx domain).

And now a second important argument by the proponents of US control over ICANN comes into play: the argument that the US invented and built the internet, and therefore it should control it. This argument bothers me the most, to be honest, as it is so utterly flawed, it is just not funny anymore.

US universities and government agencies indeed laid the groundworks for the internet, and they indeed invented various technologies that lie at the base of it. However, did those agencies build SURFnet? Or any other network outside of the United States? Did they pay for all the cables scattered around the planet?

Secondly, it is impossible to say that one person, one organisation, or even one country invented the ‘internet’. The internet as it is today is comprised of a whole set of technologies, some of which were not invented in the United States. One of the most important aspects of the present-day internet, the World Wide Web, was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, at CERN, in Switzerland.

An accurate comparison are the railroads. The railroad system bares a striking resemblance to the internet in that both are networks which transfer packets (information or people/goods) through a common standard (track width) across the world. Trains and railroads were invented in Britain; they then spread out over the world, and in the period after that, various national railroad networks were interconnected to form an almost world-wide network. And just like the internet, the government only partially contributed to its rise (remember, many networks which now form the internet were private networks or university networks). Now, how fair would it be if the British government controlled all the railroads in the world? If only the British government could decide over how trains should function? That would be completely bonkers, now, would it not?

Yes. Exactly. And that is why the current situation concerning internet governance is completely bonkers as well. Yes, indeed, the United States has done a fairly good job at making the internet flourish– however, so did the Chinese government in making its economy flourish; does this negate the lack of democracy and freedom of speech in the People’s Republic? And, yes, indeed, the US invented many of the important aspects of the internet– however, it did not pay for and built the various networks outside of its territory, and therefore, just like with the railroads, it should not be able to solely control them.

The US inevitably will concede on this issue, I know that for sure. As Soulbender put it: “The Internet does no longer need the U.S, the U.S needs the Internet.”

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