ICANN Controversy Is Just the Beginning

 
 
By Chris Nolan  |  Posted 2005-11-17
 
 
 
Its highly likely that the sort of conversation held this week in Tunisia about the Internet—yet another version of the "whos in charge?" query—will soon be heard.

It might not be at a fancy gathering of international diplomats; it might be at your local city hall, but questions about whats happening on the Web and what should—or could—be done about it are heading your way.

In fact, its the constant repetition of these sorts of conversations thats beginning to drive tech folks just a little nutty. And their frustration is becoming increasing, well frustrating. Yesterday, one of the bigger and better thinkers on the Web, Doc Searls, posted a long essay addressing his and others fears about how telephone companies may gain control of the Internet.

Now, it feels like a long way from Tunis to your local phone company. But its not. Not any more.

The World Summit on the Information Society, a grand-sounding gathering of folks who care about the Internet, decided when it met earlier this week not to insist that the U.S. nonprofit that runs the Internets root server and has all it domain naming authority should remain in charge of that end of things. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will continue it work. But it must, under a compromise worked out with nations in the European Union, consult on the creation and use of "top-level" domains.

Details of how that consultation will work, who will be involved and how disputes will be resolved arent clear at this juncture. And, since this is international politics, they may never be. Thats both good and bad news.

Its good news because the U.S., with its love of free and widespread information, gets to manage the day-to-day goings on of the Internet. But—for those who dont like that sticky place where politics and the Internet intersect—the idea of more politicians getting in on anything having to do with the Web is a nightmare. Thats bad news.

This conversation isnt going to go away. In fact, itll get worse. And thats why Searls call to action is so important.

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Its not just the EU flexing its muscles with ICANN. Its the telephone companies and the cable guys, its Hollywood and large corporations, its concerned parents and worried homeland security officials. Its Democrats and Republicans.

The ICANN controversy is just a big, fat example of the conflicts that are starting to arise. ICANN got caught in the argument over U.S. control of naming and management. One side, says the U.S., should stay in charge to maintain the power and right of free speech on the Internet. But other says the U.S. and its insistence on English use and its preference for a strictly Western way of looking at the world unfairly imposes its cultural values on others. Take that down to the local level—why does your cranky neighbor make fun of you and your skinny daughter on his Web log and what can you do about it? —and you can see where we are headed.

As more and more people use the Internet for more and more activities—everything from ordering movie tickets via instant messaging to buying groceries, swapping gossip or staking out large stock-trading positions—it gets harder for tech aficionados to dismiss calls for regulation as misguided or silly. The Internet is becoming the river into which almost everyone dips at least once a day, and the general public likes its public places to be safe and secure.

The Internet is confusing. It can be scary. Its new. For folks who live on the Internet, this is great. For everyone else, its somewhere between a huge pain in the neck and a fascinating threat.

And thats really the issue here. Lots of folks in the tech business cared very much about what happened this week in Tunisia. Many, many are going to read Searls essay. Others are going to voice the same sorts of concerns that were aired at a panel I moderated earlier this week in Boston.

But none of these issues and conversations—mostly centered around control of the Internet on a variety of government and political levels, in a wide range of countries around the globe—have gotten much out of our little circle.

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Theres still lots of time: U.S. legislation is at least a year, probably more, away, the consumer interest and support for widespread free wireless Internet access is just getting started. And essays like Searls, and discussions like the ones taking place at Harvard, are well-timed.

So here are some questions to ponder: Will tech be ready to defend its back yard? How? And when, oh when, is the hard political work going to start? It better be sooner, not later.

eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. She is editor and founder of Spot-on.com. She can be reached at cnolan@spot-on.com.

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