Internet Governance Not for Governments

March 22, 2011

Recent events in Egypt and the role of the Internet make the future of governing it in terms of technical management and coordination more critical than ever.

First some history…

The Internet was born in the USA last century as a collaborative project of the federal government through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and major research universities, including the University of Southern California (USC).  The Internet went commercial with the introduction of the world wide web in the 1990s, retail Internet information service providers and dial-up connections.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers Authority or ICANN, is a California based non-profit organization created for technical co-ordination of the Internet addressing system, including the development of policies and administration of contracts for Domain Name System (DNS) functions.  ICANN is advised on policy issues by a Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), made up of governments from around the world.  The U.S. Commerce Dept (and its NTIA) relinquished its once central role in Internet DNS governance in favor of this private sector international multi-stakeholder model.  The transition to ICANN occurred in 2009 when ICANN affirmed its commitments to coordination of the global DNS.

Certain other nations, most notably China, continue to pressure the United Nations via its Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to extinguish what it fears is persistent U.S. control over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which is responsible for oversight of IP address allocation, DNS root zone management, and other technical standards.  IANA functions under a contract with the Commerce Department, which expires in September 2011.

Last Friday, ICANN approved the controversial but voluntary use of .xxx for adult websites despite opposition from porn purveyors who say it will make it easier for them to be blocked online, and from governments that believe the new top level domain (TLD) will cause further proliferation of porn online.  In fact, pornography is already plentiful on the net, and this is just a labeling issue.

At a Congressional Internet Caucus briefing yesterday, participants discussed whether the .xxx issue was a “canary in the coalmine” foreshadowing the bumpy approval process for many other upcoming TLD name introductions and controversies.

Indeed the biggest issue on the horizon is sometimes known as “.brand” and would allow unlimited use of new TLDs with company brand names or other names, touching off a defensive race to register names for exclusive use and/or to launch trademark litigation.  Unlike with .xxx, the governments of the GAC are not muddled and divided, but rather fully support approval of .brand new TLDs in June of this year after another public comment period and revisions to a draft guidebook.  Unlike in the U.S., foreign domain name registries (databases) and registrars (those authorized to sell and register domain names to specific numeric IP addresses) are often integrated and controlled by nation-states.  ICANN sees the move to new TLDs as a way to inject competition in the domain registering business.

The overarching idea is that Internet governance is best left to multi-stakeholder private sector organizations with a formal and regular process for input from governments, rather than given over to any international body of nation- states.  Governments will tend toward conflicting regulation, filtering and censorship, whereas private sector technical innovation and business development is what has led to the Internet freedom of expression and online commerce that most of the developed world enjoys today.

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