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.