Internet Governance

The debate about the future of ICANN and Governance has expanded from the few thousand people who normally take an interest, to some serious players indeed.

No less than Kofi Annan wrote a column for the Washington Post on the issue, saying the UN doesn’t want to control the Internet.

Now I’m not going to do a full fisking of the article, because in fact much of what Mr Annan says is true. There are areas such as cybercrime and spam where a co-ordinated international approach is desirable. However he skips over the main problem.

However the debate is not about which Government should have control of the Internet, but whether any should. Yes the US does have a historical approval role for the root zone, but they have never failed to act on a recommendation from ICANN. While they have not behaved perfectly (they wrote a letter on .xxx they shouldn’t have) they generally do not interfere with the Internet, and do leave it to ICANN. And if in fact the US Govt did try to meddle politically with the root zone (say try to delete the Iran country code) then it is highly likely the root server operators and/or most ISPs worldwide would refuse to honour the change. A lot of Government do not realise that ISPs only voluntarily use the ICANN root zone as the authoritative one.

Now over time it is desirable that the US Govt give up their role in terms of approving changes, even though it is really a rubber stamp. However this should not be transferred to some UN body. Because if you do so, I can guarantee that some Governments will try and use that body to interfere. Absolutely guaranteed. For example China and Zimbabwe would be demanding domain names which are disrespectful of heads of state be de-registered. Basically it would be a vehicle for national governments to not just set policy over their part of the Internet, but over the whole thing.

So what is the way forward? Ultimately it for a private-public partnership such as ICANN to be able to make changes to the root zone without Government approval. ICANN is flawed in many ways, and at times depresses even fervent supporters. But it is stiill the best option out there. Somehow we need to get ICANN credible enough that the US Congress will allow the US Government to fully delegate the management of the root zone. This is not a small challenge.

In the past few weeks ICANN has done some bad, some good. They have settled some lawuits from Verisign (which is good) but in doing so have given Verisign the right to keep the .com registry pretty much forever, and with far less restrictions. Bret Fauseet in an open letter points out why this is a bad move. On the positive side they have just appointed Susan Crawford to the Board, who is highly respected by many within civil society. They have also done some politically smart stuff like more international diversity in other appointments, including an Iranian to the at-large committee to represent users. I hope he won’t get shot for agreeing to serve 🙂

Finally those who are still with me may want to read an excellent interview with Professor Lawrence Lessig on the issue, as he explains things better than me!

Also for a more US-centric view is this piece in the Wall Street Journal from Senator Norm Coleman called “Beware a Digital Munich”.

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