News & Politics
ICANN: The Secret Government of the Internet?
March 31, 2000
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a little-known international body that has been established by the US Dept of Commerce to oversee crucial Internet functions. Many Internet watch dogs fear that this technical oversight will have profound policy ramifications regarding the future of the Internet and of Internet governance. ICANN recently held its international meeting in Cairo (March 7-10) where certain fundamental matters regarding the future of Internet governance were decided.Despite the centrality of ICANN's role in Internet governance issues, there has been little media coverage of ICANN. I believe this ought to be a matter of greater public concern. ICANN has set up a means for individual Internet users to have input into their decisions, which I also detail at the end of the commentary.As our increasingly globalized world tiptoes towards experiments in globalized governance, the World Trade Organization is not the only newborn institution raising concern. In particular, commercial interests are beginning to pull at the hem of Internet governance, with the potential of corralling the decentralized international online network.How many people have ever heard of ICANN, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers? Depending on whose description you read, ICANN is either an innocuous non-profit with a narrow technical mandate, or the first step in corralling the Internet for commercial and other purposes.Here are a few facts: ICANN is a nonprofit corporation that was chartered by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce in November 1999 to oversee a select set of Internet technical management functions previously managed by the U.S. Government. These functions include fostering competition in the domain name registration market (i.e. the selling of .COM, .NET and .ORG suffixes) and settling disputes over "cyber squatting" (the intentional buying of domain names like McDonalds.com for later re-sale at exorbitant prices to the corporation).That all sounds fairly bureaucratic and benign, but there's more to the picture than first meets the eye. And it's really got some watchdogs like the Center for Democracy and Technology and Common Cause worked up.To understand the suspicion it's necessary to understand a bit about what is called the "root server", and the critical role ICANN plays in overseeing it. Servers are high-powered computers that function as the crossroads of the Internet, kind of like the neurons of our central nervous system, through which all email messages and requests to view Web pages get routed.Whomever controls the "root" server can decide which other servers all Internet users worldwide will be directed to when they try to view any Web site address in the .COM, .NET and .ORG domains. Controllers of the root server can say: "From now on, we will use the data in server X as the authoritative list of .COM names and addresses, but only so long as the operator of that server complies with the following conditions." Those conditions being things like requiring that all domain server operators pay them a certain fee, or provide them with particular kinds of information about the people to whom they have handed out specific names and addresses, or only allow transmission of files in a specified format. Or things as yet undreamed of.Since ICANN controls the root server, it is technically feasible for this nearly anonymous organization to exercise a kind of life-or-death power over the global network, because presence in (or absence from) this chain of interlocking servers and databases is a matter of cyberspace life or death. If your domain name and Web address cannot be found on the root server or its mirror servers, you simply do not exist -- at least, not on the Internet. Eliminate the entry for xyz.com from the .COM domain server and xyz.com vanishes entirely from cyberspace. Designate as the new .COM domain server a machine that does not have an entry for xyz.com in its database, and you have imposed the electronic equivalent of the death penalty on xyz.com.This raises important policy questions around issues of privacy, sovereignty and cyber-property that have the potential to go far beyond ICANN's narrow technical mandate. Take the following test, and see how you would resolve the following:* One anti-abortion Web site listed the names of doctors performing abortions and crossed them off as they were assassinated. Another Web site published the names of alleged British intelligence agents and put their lives and, potentially, British national security, at risk. ICANN has the power to wipe out these Web sites, should it do so?* Or how about a Web site of anonymous Chinese dissidents, broadcasting their message to the world and to their compatriots? How should ICANN balance anonymity on the Web -- a key element of political freedom -- with the right to know who is behind a domain name?* There's a Web site called MartinLutherKing.org, and guess what? The authors of that Web site and the owners of that domain name specialize in slandering the slain civil rights leader. Is that free speech, or is that a violation of the "trademark," not to mention the legacy, of Martin Luther King?* Should Internet users under the jurisdiction of the Palestine Authority be eligible for an email address ending with .pl, just as users in the United Kingdom have email addresses ending with .uk? How about the Kurds? How about the Basques? Who should decide?* Should ICANN have acted in the case of B92, the courageous and respected independent radio station in Belgrade that had its online identity -- b92.net -- taken over and used by Slobodan Milosevic? B92 asked ICANN to suspend b92.net, but ICANN declined.In many instances, acting or not acting will have equal implications. ICANN must decide what falls within their scope of jurisdiction. Bizarre as it may seem for a decentralized global network that supposedly "exists nowhere and everywhere," the root server and the various domain servers to which it points constitute the very heart of the Internet. The root server is the Archimedean point on which this vast global network balances. After all the talk over the past few years about how difficult it will be to regulate the Internet, the domain name system looks like the one place where Internet policy can be enforced.Anyone interested in controlling the rules under which activities on the Internet take place -- and many commercial interests, who now realize the huge economic stakes in the Internet, and many governments too, find that they are indeed quite interested -- is likely to find the existence of a single controlling point awfully tempting for imposing its will. Indeed, according to the New York Times, ICANN's policy-making process so far has been dominated largely by technical and commercial interests.Not surprisingly, watchdog groups have proposed that, unlike the secretive World Trade Organization, ICANN's international board of directors should be publicly elected and subject to public meetings and disclosure. Some within ICANN are embracing this call for elected representation and accountability, while others are resisting.Not too many people have even heard about this ICANN business, and that's just fine with certain elements within ICANN. In fact, that's the way they want it. Don't let it stay that way. To find out more information, visit the Web sites of the Center for Democracy and Technology (www.cdt.org/dns) or ICANN Watch (www.icannwatch.org). Any Internet user can become a member of ICANN for free and vote in a September election by registering at www.icann.org. Also, ICANN has created an Internet forum where people can post their opinions at www.icann.org/feedback.html, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Let them know what you think, and spread the word. Someday we may look back and realize that this moment was the Internet's "1776," critical in deciding who got to control this new form of global communication.Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. For more information, see www.fairvote.org,call or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.