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A battle for the soul of the Internet

Tucows CEO Elliot Noss warns of a threat to cyberspace if international politics are allowed to trump sober judgment.

Without garnering much attention, a battle is raging for the soul of the Internet.

The United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union are trying to wrest control of domain names and DNS and IP addresses from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This battle manifests itself through the United Nations-created World Summit on the Information Society and the ITU-led Working Group on Internet Governance.

If the United Nations controlled domain names and IP addresses, the ability of countries to censor the Internet would be greatly enhanced.
While the Internet itself is essentially a series of protocols adhered to by consent, it relies on a single authoritative root at its core. This assures that Internet users end up where they should when they type "" into their browsers. Anything but uniqueness with this vital resource would result in collision and confusion. The same would be true for e-mail. Unless senders could be sure there was only one unique identifier for a recipient, they could not use e-mail with confidence.

Both the United Nations and the ITU have their reasons for trying to take control of these vital resources from ICANN. For the United Nations, ICANN represents a body that transcends the nation state structure and could become a model for similar efforts covering subject matter most appropriately dealt with at a global level.

For the ITU, gaining control of core Internet resources represents an opportunity to put the Internet genie back in the bottle and gain a greater measure of relevance in the IP networking world. The ITU doesn't see itself as merely an overseer of the old circuit-switched networks, which it presides over today. Rather, it views itself as the overseer of all networks, including the Internet.

While ICANN has its flaws, it also possesses important and unique characteristics. Two are worthy of special note.

First, ICANN's form of governance explicitly includes policy, technical, business and user interests under one roof. Each interest group has a formal role and voice in both policy making and governance. Each has a stake in the proceedings, and each is an important part of the system. (Yes, users' voices need be heard more, and as an active participant in the ICANN process and member of the 2005 ICANN Nominating Committee, I will continue to work toward that goal.) Having these combined interests explicitly inside the process avoids some of the perversions that we have seen in other forms of governance, campaign finance being perhaps the starkest example.

Second, ICANN is a truly global organization. It is global in the sense that the individuals involved each represent one of the above-mentioned interests but not national governments. This is an important concept, in that the Internet is truly a global resource, but it is this unique element that creates the greatest challenge. We have no model for managing a global resource of this nature. There are numerous models for managing international resources--resources being managed between nations--but that is not what the Internet is.

In this regard, ICANN mirrors the Internet in that it works by "rough consensus." The checks and balances are systemic. This is what has allowed for the price of domain names to drop by 50 percent to 75 percent over the last five years, while service levels have increased dramatically. This is what has allowed the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Process to eliminate cybersquatting of trademarks.

The World Summit on Information Society contains 40 delegates, including members from Cuba, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Pakistan, Syria, Russia and Egypt. If the United Nations controlled domain names and IP addresses, the ability of countries to censor the Internet would be greatly enhanced, as would the ability to tax or impose other regulatory burdens on these resources in order to fund unrelated projects of any kind.

In fact, if the United Nations and the ITU were successful, it is not difficult to envision a balkanization of the Internet, as whole portions of the network decided they did not want to rely on the United Nations and the ITU for their single authoritative root. If that balkanization were to take place, the damage to the global economy would be incalculable.

In addition, these Internet governance positions would not be plum United Nations postings. We could expect to see the likes of Internet pioneer Vint Cerf replaced by some dictator's wife's third cousin.

For the United Nations, ICANN represents a body that transcends the nation-state structure.
The United Nations and the ITU are putting forward two main arguments for replacing ICANN. They claim such a move is necessary to wrest control of the Internet from the United States and that ICANN is a private organization, beholden to no one and representing no one.

To be clear, ICANN is a not-for-profit California corporation that nominally reports to the U.S. Department of Commerce. It operates under a memorandum of understanding with the agency that is reviewed and renewed in six-month intervals.

Despite this, ICANN is not American--it is global. There are three Americans on a 15-person board of directors. There are six Americans on the 22-person generic names-supporting organization council, the main policy-making body. Two Americans are on the 10-person at-large advisory council. There has not been a meeting in the United States since November 2001, and the earliest possibility of a U.S. meeting is in June 2007, a 17-meeting gap. (The last North American meeting was in Montreal in June 2003, and the next is in Vancouver, British Columbia, in December.)

As for it being representative, ICANN has always had one prerequisite for involvement: a willingness to take the time and effort to participate. There is active representation from Internet communities from around the world. The level of participation, the quality of participation and the output of the process have steadily improved over ICANN's history.

Neither the United Nations nor the ITU can make any of these claims. Participation in their processes requires a position with a national government or a telecommunications monopoly, neither of which are known for their deep appreciation and understanding of the Internet.

There is no doubt that both the United Nations and the ITU are much more adept at politics than either ICANN staff or the vast majority of participants in the ICANN process. That makes the threat here all the more real.

It is important to remember that we all rely on the rich ecosystem that is the free Internet. We are all beneficiaries of the innovation it spawns, the information it provides and the interaction it supports. We cannot take this for granted.

Companies that rely on a free Internet--and there are few technology companies that don't--need to become active in the ICANN process through the business or ISP Constituencies. Other institutions and nonprofits need to get involved through the noncommercial constituency.

Companies, institutions and individuals from around the world that have access to their governments' decision makers need to let them know that the Internet needs to stay free and that supporting ICANN supports that principle. Individuals who care about the future of the Internet and believe they can contribute to creating a better ICANN and preserving a freer Internet should think about the ICANN-nominating committee's call for Statements of Interest, which seeks qualified candidates to help the organization move forward.

The Internet has contributed more to freedom, education and innovation than any other advance of the last number of decades. It deserves to be protected from the people and the institutions that do not share an appreciation for preserving the values on which the Internet was founded.