If you run a web site or service that runs afoul of US law, and that site is hosted overseas, then the US legal system doesn’t have much recourse, right? Wrong. Because the .com, .net, and .org top level domains are managed by a US company, the government can come to Verisign with a court order and seize your domain, effectively shutting you down. And because of a quirk of internet history that made the US-controlled domains the de-facto standard for web sites, this is a situation that’s quite possibly permanent.This situation would have become even more amped up had SOPA/PIPA passed, since it would have given entertainment companies more ability to put sites in the government’s crosshairs, but open internet activists point out that the US government has plenty of tools it can use to shut down sites promoting illegal gambling, filesharing, and other activities that violate some interpretation of existing law. Some countries. Many people and countries have called to end the US’ control over the major TLDs, suggesting that it be turned over to the International Telecommunications Union, but others point out that the ITU, a UN agency, is a sclerotic, ineffective bureaucracy that would only make matters worse.
This isn’t a black and white issue, because while the US may be abusing its power, wresting the domain name system away from any accountability to any government is probably never going to happen. That means that if the US loses .com, it could possibly be out of the frying pan into the fire, with domain name politics enjoying the same ineffectual gridlock that the Israel-Palestinian dispute does.
The one bright spot is that as the internet and our use of it evolves, it may become less dependent on static domain names. In the age of Google, let’s imagine that Facebook lost its domain name and had to change its name to facemash.se. There would be chaos for a few days for sure, but most internet users are going to be able to find where Facebook went in short order. In fact, an alarming number of people find websites by searching google for them every single time, rather than bookmarking. And of course, if the US or any other government ever overreaches on the domain name system, we can always create a new, decentralized one. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.