Here’s something you don’t generally see in a column on technology: an appeal to patriotism.
We rightly think of the Internet as a global communications network. But in a very important sense, it’s an American network. The Obama administration plans to change this, and therein lies a potential problem.
Last week, the administration said the United States will begin negotiations to cede control of one of the Net’s most powerful institutions, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. Currently overseen by the Department of Commerce, ICANN will be taken over by an international agency to be assembled later. The process is set to begin next week in Singapore, where the current ICANN members are scheduled to meet.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of ICANN, but for nearly two decades, with a minimum of fuss, it’s managed the vital system that ensures all Internet-connected devices can find each other. It operates the “domain name system,” which creates online addresses with familiar endings such as .com, .gov, or .org. and allows people to navigate from one corner of the Internet to another.
The agency has gotten a burst of publicity in recent months by unveiling dozens of new domain names, such as .coffee, .sexy, and .rich.
ICANN already has a board with members from around the globe. So why does it need the United States as overseer? Many other vital technologies are managed without American oversight. For example, that Wi-Fi router in your house uses technical standards drawn up by an international band of engineers, and it works just fine.
But the design of Wi-Fi is a purely technical problem, safely left to engineers. ICANN sits in the twilight zone where technology meets politics. It’s like the Internet’s zoning commission, with a major say in who gets what piece of digital real estate and what they can do with it.
And if the Internet must submit to a measure of political influence, I want the politicians to be Americans, or at least to be people with the open-minded spirit of the Internet’s creators.
To understand why, let’s look at France. A fine country, and a liberal democracy, too. But France imposes restrictions on free speech that wouldn’t fly in the United States. For instance, it’s illegal there to merely display a Nazi swastika. And France doesn’t mind enforcing this law beyond its borders. In 2000, France’s International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism sued the American Internet company Yahoo Inc. for holding online auctions of Nazi memorabilia. The French plaintiffs won, even though the auction was held in the United States.
Now imagine the Internet had been invented in France. They might well have created a version of ICANN that would have barred any Internet sites dealing in Nazi stuff. Problem solved — not just for the French, but for everyone else, as well.
The Internet doesn’t work this way today because it was designed by free-speech-loving Americans. Maybe it will preserve its freedom under international control, maybe not.
To be sure, the recent revelations about massive US Internet spying have severely weakened America’s claim to the moral high ground. But the folly of the National Security Agency has nothing to do with ICANN, an organization that has maintained the Internet’s freedom and openness for almost 20 years.
Some of the world’s most censorious nations have long dreamed of supplanting ICANN. In November 2012, at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, seven countries, including Russia and China, proposed to strip ICANN of much of its power.
Instead, individual nations would get near-total control over all Internet activities within their borders. The idea was dropped in the face of global outrage, but it gives you an idea of what some world leaders would like to do if they had control over the Net.
At about the same time, Saudi Arabia criticized ICANN’s plan to roll out new domain names. This famously conservative country wanted to reject Internet addresses ending in .gay and .sexy, but they also opposed .catholic, .bible, and even .islam. Under today’s version of ICANN, the Saudis’ complaints went nowhere. Next time, who knows?
Handing over control of ICANN need not be a disaster. The Obama administration says it is determined to negotiate a deal that will prevent foreign governments from imposing their will, and the United Nations will be frozen out.
The plan is to create an independent, international agency with no incentive to practice censorship. Among the requirements laid out by the US government: The new overseer must “maintain the openness of the Internet.”
Done right, it might work.
But today’s ICANN already works, and I can’t think of a good reason to do away with it.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.