Global leaders debate Internet governance

A dispute over who controls the fundamental structure of the Internet could lead to a fragmentation in which addresses work in one part of the world and not another unless governments can reach a compromise.

An international meeting in Tunis later this month will tackle the debate. At issue is authority over the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), based in Marina Del Rey, Calif., and contracted by the United States Department of Commerce to manage Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. ICANN decides what top-level domains – like dot-com, dot-org and dot-ca – are allowed, and it manages the root zone, which ultimately controls access to everything on the Internet.

If ICANN were to remove, say, the .ca domain from the root, suddenly all the Web and e-mail addresses ending in ,ca would stop working.

ICANN has never done anything like this, and there is no particular reason to expect it will – although, notes Hans Klein, a professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology who follows Internet issues, ICANN did recently delay the creation of a .xxx domain for pornographic material after pressure from the U.S. and other governments.

The fact that a body with this sort of power reports to a single national government is increasingly being questioned. What could for a while be dismissed as the protests of a few anti-U.S. states became harder to ignore when, in late September, the European Union threw its support behind a United Nations committee’s proposal that the Internet governance structure be changed.

But that was in response to some apparent backpedaling by the current U.S. government on a direction set by former President Bill Clinton, whose government had been moving toward sharing control over ICANN with the rest of the world.

In a statement issued in June, the U.S. said it “intends to preserve the security and stability of the Internet’s Domain Name and Addressing System (DNS) … and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.”

“Apparently the Clinton administration was moving toward some form of international oversight,” says Ronald Aitchison, Montreal-based author of Pro DNS and BIND, a book on the DNS.  “This is viewed as being reneged on by the current administration.”

The EU has now endorsed creating a new body under the auspices of the United Nations or the international community – one of the options presented in a June report by the United Nations’ Working Group on Internet Governance. The working group presented four options, ranging from increasing international representation on ICANN”s Governmental Advisory Committee to handing over oversight of ICANN to a new international body, possibly under UN control. 

The prevailing Canadian view seems to be that control of the Internet should be shared internationally, but that a UN body is not necessarily the right way to do it.

“It’s an international network,” says Tom Copeland, president of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), “and the ability to manage it should be shared.” But Copeland says he has reservations about the UN’s ability to do the job efficiently.

Klein voices a similar concern. “If you make (ICANN) report to the UN there’s a risk it becomes political or bureaucratic,” he says.

Some U.S. commentators have raised the spectre of a UN-controlled ICANN being used against their country. Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, refers to the debate on his blog as “efforts by the UN and EU to take over the Internet,” adding that “you can bet that they’ll do their best to quash criticism of corrupt international bureaucracies if that happens.”

Klein says some Americans’ fears “that China and Saudi Arabia and Cuba are going to be in charge of the Internet” are overblown. “The greatest danger is bureaucratization and inability to make any decisions,” he says.

But there’s a greater danger than that, Aitchison suggests: If the dispute remains unresolved, rival root zones could fragment the Internet.

He points to the European-based Open Root Servers Network, a group that mirrors the ICANN root servers on their own servers in Germany. The group says its primary goal is to reduce European Net users’ dependence on American servers, and it simply reproduces the root zone as it exists on the ICANN-run servers. However, it does not favour American control of the root zone, and Aitchison suggests that such a group could choose to create its own rival root zone. 

What would that mean? Simply that an alternate root zone might add or remove top-level domains from the ICANN list. To take one of the spectres raised by Americans opposed to a UN-governed DNS, extremist Arab states might decide to remove Israel’s TLD from the root – just as a U.S.-controlled ICANN could, if it chose, remove the TLD of Cuba or Iraq.

Even if such crass political actions didn’t occur, any fragmentation of the Internet would clearly be undesirable. For that reason, Aitchison believes some compromise will be reached. Fragmentation is unthinkable, he says, and “neither side wants to expose the problem longer than necessary, since the rogue groups could become more vocal and increase polarization in an already polarized world.”

As for the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), which administers the dot-ca TLD, spokesman Gabriel Ahad says its main interest is in stability. “We would continue to work with an organization like ICANN in support of the stability of the Internet,” he says, “and if that organization is ICANN, then we would work with it.”

Stability is the most important issue for most Internet users, Ahad says. “If you were to ask the average Canadian what he wants out of this, he would probably tell you: ‘I don’t really care, as long as it works.’”


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