The closest thing the Internet has to a governing body seems to want the same kind of immunity from national laws that the International Red Cross and the International Olympic Committee have enjoyed for decades.
A recent report prepared for the board of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) says the organization should "explore the private international organization model" and it should "operationalize whatever outcomes result."
Dejargonized, that means ICANN could become largely immune from civil lawsuits, police searches and taxes, and its employees would have quasi-diplomatic privileges (such as importing items into the U.S. without paying customs duties).
The only catch? The Bush administration doesn't appear to like the idea of ICANN becoming an independent international organization. In fact, instead of letting ICANN slip further out of its grasp, the administration seems to be tightening its grip on the Marina del Ray, Calif.-based group.
This nicely sets the stage for yet another potential power struggle over the future of Internet governance--things like domain names, trademark rules, and conflict resolution procedures. (The Bush crowd already was getting worried about ICANN almost--but but not quite--approving a .xxx domain suffix.)
One option ICANN has is what wags erroneously speculated Microsoft would do at the height of the Clinton administration's antitrust pursuit of the company seven years ago: Move elsewhere.
The speculation at the time was that Microsoft would move its Redmond, Wash., headquarters north of the border to British Columbia and thereby escape some of the zanier actions of the Justice Department. The speculation today about ICANN is that it could relocate to Switzerland, where it's far easier to obtain the privileges of an international organization (the U.N., WIPO, and countless other agencies happen to be located in Geneva).
This time, it's not just speculation. An August 2006 analysis from ICANN makes it clear that the Swiss framework for such international groups would be an especially attractive one. Another telling sentence in the new report says that "ICANN's headquarters may remain in the U.S.," as opposed to a flat statement saying it will remain here.
In the U.S., international organizations are governed by a 1945 law that grants them "immunity from suit" and says their property and assets "shall be immune from search." Employees are generally immune from income taxes and from customs duties and taxes. Plus, legal immunity would certainly help ICANN eliminate some of its expensive litigation headaches.
If all this sounds kind of familiar, it is. A few years ago the question was whether the United Nations would take over ICANN. Today, though, it looks more like ICANN will try to mimic the United Nations.
PS: For your aural delectation, here's our podcast on the subject from Monday afternoon.