Thursday, October 20, 2005

ICANN If You Can

Everyone's getting het up about the prospect of the current residual US responsibilities for the Internet infrastructure and the possibility that the forthcoming World Summit for the Information Society might give them to the UN, or more specifically the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN tech body that makes sure North Korean and Japanese phone lines interwork. A lot of American bloggers have been, predictably, furious. It's worth giving some thought to the substance of the criticism.

The key thing is that, apparently, "if the UN get - shudder - control of the Internet the Chinese could censor everything!" Or, for Chinese, insert any foreign government. The first, and uncomfortable, point is that it seems a lot less obvious to me that the US government is so trustworthy than it does to some. What power is it that a new Internet forum would have? Well, they would own the contracts under which the 13 root servers are operated. The US Department of Commerce do now. Do they censor them? No, and anyway the national root domains could if necessary interwork without them. The same would go if a Texas Republican nightmare UN took them over. Alternative rootservers already exist, in fact, and the German bloke who runs one of them won't stop telling the networking mail lists about it, damn him. Under an UN solution, at least all nations with a TLD would be represented. And, as is normal at most international executive organisations, the principle of unanimity would rule. Don't like the Chinese proposal? Vote against it.

But this is absurd. The Chinese are censoring the Internet right now: and the tool they use is not the UN, but a far more effective one. Very simply, state-owned or state-near companies own all the routers of China. Everything that passes through them may be filtered. The real censorship threat lies not at the UN, but at your friendly local ISP - because they have the best place in the network topology to censor you. Root servers actually aren't a good option for censorship: how long does it take to set up a new domain name?

Back in the day, back before ICANN was invented, there was a brief period of democracy on the Internet, when the central authorities were elected. What we need is an elected ICANN (and IANA), all of whose documents are published as RFCs, Requests for Comments, like those that define the standards that make it all happen. The real discovery of the Net was not the exact protocols, but a social agreement to exchange information in a certain fashion and a particular collaborative way of working. The pioneers did not just invent a networking protocol, they did everything differently - note the humility in the title. Request for Comments. And they are still open for comments, from the 7th April 1969 to this exact moent. Here is a challenge: how should a democratic Internet governance look like? Call this post P (for People's)-RFC1.


Anonymous said...

From an article in the .tw ccTLD, “Taiwan Deserves a Place in the United Nations
"It is most regrettable that Taiwan’s international status does not yet reasonably reflect its admirable political and economic achievements. At present, not only the United Nations but also its affiliated organizations adopt a discriminatory policy of segregation by shutting out Taiwan."

Anonymous said...

If other countries want to control the internet so much, why don't they invent their own, and stop trying to steal ours! We shouldn't have let foreigners use the damn thing in the first place!
S in Chicago

Alex said...

I'm sorry, but that is simply too ignorant to let pass. You quite clearly have no idea what "the Internet" is. It is NOT your ISP. It is NOT AT&T. It is NOT Microsoft, nor even Apple. Most of the systems that make up the Internet are outside your borders.

You do not have the option of "not letting foreigners use it", because there is no it - how will you stop us using our own fibreoptic lines and satellites (shock! we aren't all cavemen) to do TCP/IP?

Two possible explanations: you're either 12 years old and hence forgivable, or not and ought to know better. Fuck you.

James in San Francisco said...

Although the Internet was likely more democratic, experimental, and creative before the transnational corporations (TNCs) began to seize its power, there are some serious considerations involved in its shared governance and development.
It is clear that any number of governments - my own repressive USA at the top of the list - will censor or attempt to censor the Internet at will, unless there is some type of international oversight group. Similarly, it is evident, that, as a tool of the USA, TNCs will both censor and develop the parts of the Internet that advance the present neo-conservative agenda of the far right wing (isolationism, moral bigotry in the guise of a dogmatic religious belief system, etc.) and will suppress the free expression and exchange of ideas when it suits their purposes. However, the core infrastructure of the Net began and remains the creation of the USA, which also needs to be respected.
Clearly, America in its present neo-conservative regime cannot be trusted to properly administer the Internet. Similarly, neither can many other governments. The safest choice would be to implement full freedom of expression on the Internet, locate oversight in an international body probably in the hands of the progressive democracies via the United Nations, and appropriately recognize the USA for creating and developing the first generation of an emergent planetary information network.

Anonymous said...

it is about money pure and simple... the EU and others want to be able to Tax Internet commerce...

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