Why they’re talking about Internet governance

October 20, 2005

It’s an unlikely matter for the United States and other nations to lock horns over: the administration of names and numbers used to reach Internet sites. But this seemingly trivial function is occupying a lot of time among government representatives traveling from continent to continent. A United Nations body wants to wrest power over these things from their current master, the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The United States says that with ICANN in charge, things are running just fine (which they aren’t). Many people condemn one side or the other for trying to carry out a power grab, or call the engagement a lot of hot air.

But to me the first question to ask is: who called the names-and-numbers issue one of “governance” in the first place? Why did this ever become something for corporations, governments, and international bodies to wrestle over? Why isn’t it going on quietly, cheaply, and with universal acceptance in the background, like so many other aspects of Internet operation?

The matter of Internet names and numbers is actually a sad and sordid history that goes back over ten years. It never should have come to this point, where it is wasting millions upon millions of dollars, along with time and energy of some top Internet thinkers—and where real initiatives that could improve Internet access get shoved to the corners and left to gather dust.

Domain names get hot

ICANN has control over three types of addressing, sometimes called resources. The very term “resources” biases its listeners right off the start, because a resource is usually something valuable that’s limited and needs to be managed and bargained over. Addressing is being treated that way, but it didn’t have to be.

The first type of address is the number assigned to each computer for the purposes of routing traffic. This is called the IP address (where IP stands for “Internet protocols”), and in its current form it tends to be printed in four parts, such as (the current address of the site where this article was first published www.american-reporter.com).

There used to be fears that we were running out of IP addresses, and accusations that some sites were receiving more than they needed, were hoarding them, etc. There may be pockets where scarcity exists, but to address the problem (pun intended), the Internet body that designed the IP address (and which has nothing to do with ICANN) created a new version, IPv6, that vastly expands the number of available addresses.

Few sites have adopted IPv6, which requires enormous administrative changes. One of the tragedies of ICANN’s existence is that it has played no role promoting this conversion to new addressing, even though as a central controlling organization for IP addresses, it would have a natural role as evangelist for the change. Instead, ICANN is mired in the other controversies described in this article, along with its own bureaucratic bumbling.

A second addressing category involves a collection of potpourri called “assigned numbers.”

But the towering controversy in ICANN is the third area of addressing, the assignment of domain names. These are what let you request www.american-reporter.com in your browser instead of, and their presence is much appreciated. A lot of emotional baggage (as well as commercial power, as we shall see) is loaded onto domain names, but at base, they are simply another form of addressing.

In the mid-1990s a true governance issue struck the Internet: the U.S. government opened it up for commercial use. Before then, it was supposed to be used only for government, academic, and research purposes. But now you could actually sell something over the Internet! Driven by this new freedom and the recent invention of the graphical web browser, thousands of companies poured the wares out before a virtual marketplace.

Domain names were not designed for the new distribution of Internet users. Just seven names existed at the top of the tree, such as .mil for military use and .gov for government agencies. (A typical name is whitehouse.gov.) These names—called top-level domains—were managed by the U.S. government. Of course, other countries had come online by then, but they had their own names, such as .fr for France. Only one top-level name was allocated for commercial use—and for that reason, the history of computing will always remember the mid- to-late 1990s as the “dot-com” era.

Yes, having a name ending in .com became one of the most pressing business requirements overnight. And businesses wanted a name that reflected their trademark, such as ford.com or porsche.com.

Internet-savvy speculators bought up hundreds of thousands of famous names with no goal in mind but to wait until the company with the trademark came looking for it—and then they charged thousands or even millions of dollars to make the transfer. This was simply the free market at work, but the capitalists who got in line too late for their favorite domain names steamed up and called it cyber-squatting.

There are many possible solutions to cyber-squatting. Companies could choose a name that wasn’t taken yet, or just pay the squatter. But quite large corporations started making ugly noises about possessing trademarks and launched lawsuits to gain control over their own names.

At the same time, the company called Network Solutions that happened to have gained control over handing out .com names—through a process somewhat less orderly than a game of musical chairs—realized they were sitting on the Fort Knox of Internet gold mines and started charging money for a service that used to be free. The fee was nominal by commercial standards, but high enough to make individuals think twice about reserving names for themselves.

The clamor got worse and worse until a set of Internet public activists suggested a conference pulling together everyone interested in the domain name problem. This conference took place in July 1998 in Virginia under the name Global Incorporation Alliance Workshop. The name reflected a recent white paper from the U.S. commerce department that indicated the government’s resolve to incorporate a new corporation that would handle names and numbers. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) submitted a paper (to which I contributed) called “Domain Name Resolutions.”

Amazingly enough, progress was made at the workshop. The many contending stakeholders came to consensus on some key points that would protect free expression and diversity among domain names. Had negotiations proceeded in that direction, the whole issue of allocating domain names might have been resolved harmoniously and the world could have gone on to more weighty topics. Whether or not everyone abided by the decisions, the results of the workshop would have represented a powerful moral direction post pointing toward an open Internet governed by consensus—had the results been the basis for further developments.

The first power grab

It should be understood, before we go further, that pressure on the .com space could easily and immediately relieved by creating new names, such as .biz. The allure of the “dot-com” name held corporations back from endorsing this simple solution. But a more sinister drive lies behind the domain name controversy.

Having established commercial beachheads on the Internet, corporations wanted to own the whole terrain. Through the World Intellectual Property Organization—an organization that make international policies regarding trademarks, copyright, and so on—they were designing a new regime for handling domain names. It was nicely suited to large corporations with the money to take out trademarks, litigate disputes, and so forth, but was unfriendly to individuals or organizations of limited means. For a variety of reasons, an artificial scarcity served the purposes of some powerful institutions.

Within weeks of the successful conclusion of the Global Incorporation Alliance Workshop, a lash-up of Internet leaders, Network Solutions, and other back room forces popped a proposal of their own on a surprised and unprepared Internet community. The proposal (which was the second try for most of these actors, the first having collapsed as a half-baked exercise) ultimately led to ICANN. Most stakeholders were left out of the decision—even many large corporations were angry—but the Commerce Department approved the proposal, happy to wash its hands of the issue.

Or so they thought. ICANN was to come back and pain them year after year—through lapses in following through on their requirements, through financial problems, and through sheer all-around failure. At least once, the renewal of ICANN’s contract was seriously imperiled. Each time, perhaps grudgingly, the Commerce Department would give ICANN a new lease on life. Yet now the U.S. government staunchly defends the organization they castigated and threatened, when it comes up against U.N. criticism.

And do you know what was the most absurd aspect of the whole domain name mess? Within a couple years, search engines had progressed enough that content could be easily located regardless of domain name. Whether you are ford.com or porsche.com or american-reporter.com isn’t very important anymore. The problem that caused ICANN to be created, after so Machiavellian manipulation, simply evaporated. And yet ICANN existed, and exists to this day. Thus it provides spur for the current debate over “Internet governance.”

An international brouhaha

Two aspects of ICANN—IP addressing and assigned numbers—roll along with hardly any discussion; the third aspect—domain names—could have done the same if the trademark holders and World Intellectual Property Organization and ICANN hadn’t raised such a stink over them. But now that a locus of control has been established, everybody wants a piece of it.

The debate currently goes on within the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a body set up by the United Nations in December 2001 to make international policy regarding Internet access. The summit approved a declaration of principles that is almost completely laudable, stocked with such standard fare as bringing poor people online and protecting freedom of speech.

But they have a bee in their bonnet concerning ICANN. Certainly, it is controlled by the United States government—which reneges on its duties by letting ICANN blunder about so much—but the solution is not to bring it under U.N. control. The solution is to hand all its powers over to leaner, more technically focused groups that operate with less fuss and more consensus.

It is not clear whether we can go back to a golden age of a technically run, frictionless Internet. There was a time when control over the servers for domain names, along with the top-level allocation of IP addresses and assigned numbers, rested in a single computer scientist who had done early work on the Internet and was respected by all, named Jon Postel. Clearly, this was not a sustainable solution (ironically, Postel died tragically a few weeks after helping to create ICANN), but the length of its successful operation shows that basic solutions can be quite light-weight.

Domain names do raise policy concerns of a technical nature, and various actors in the space can take action to improve them. The two main issues are making sure the servers don’t go down or get overloaded (technical robustness) and making sure nobody can spoof a name in order to direct you to a fake site (technical security). Providing names in every language, using character sets recognized by each culture and country, is another technical issue.

But ICANN has done virtually nothing on the first two issues, and acted very slowly on the third. Instead, it concerns itself with policy issues that fall into two broad categories:

The first problem can be solved by loosening rules for top-level domains, so that more are created. To ensure that all users can find all valid domain names. some central body is needed to create and hand out control over new top-level domains. This could be done by a small service center in a manner similar to how registrars hand out names within each top-level domain.

The second problem can be solved by a policy that treats domain names simply as references—like book titles, which are never treated as trademark violations—and therefore things to which no one has more right than anyone else.

What really needs governance?

Thanks to ICANN, WSIS is now worried about “governance.” In the book Internet Governance: A Grand Collaboration (available in PDF format) contributor Wolfgang Kleinwächter says the term “Internet governance” first appeared in a WSIS document in January 2002, and become a “hot item” at a February 2003 conference. WSIS now devotes a clause to that term in its plan of action.

And now that governance is on the table in the form of the ICANN debate, a number of other cards have been played by various governments. Many are indeed pressing issues that can use the help of governments and international agencies:

These issues were thrusting to the surface anyway, and had been brought before many governments as well as international bodies such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. But the existence of the obtrusive, non-consensus-based, quasi-governmental ICANN furnished an example of governance that countries unfortunately treated with envy rather than repugnance.

Resources do require management. Our oceans are becoming polluted and devoid of edible fish; our energy sources are running out; armaments ranging from rifles to nuclear materials are traversing borders far too freely.

But the Internet is not a resource as these are. It is a medium, infinitely expandable. The U.N. can certainly help governments adapt to its bounty, and its challenges. Well-placed funding for access, content, and law enforcement are valuable.

Luckily, most of the actors (including the authors of the book mentioned earlier in this article) give at least lip-service to multilateralism and transparency. They recognize that Internet issues require cooperation among many actors—rather like that Global Incorporation Alliance Workshop back in 1998. In his contribution to that book, William Drake (a colleague of mine in CPSR) calls for an “integrative analysis” that would probably be a loose coalition of stakeholders, rather than a centralized governing body.

By taking names and numbers off the bargaining table, we can free up space for policy issues we really need to deal with.

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