Curious Doings At ICANN

Only the same Cold War frenzy that sent human beings to the moon and launched the microelectronics revolution could have created a true paradigm shift like the Internet.

Only the same Cold War frenzy that sent human beings to the moon and launched the microelectronics revolution could have created a true paradigm shift like the Internet. Competition, whatever its roots, brings out the best in us.

And only Ira Magaziner, architect of the convoluted bureaucratic nightmare known as the Clinton health-care plan, could have set out to encourage competition and ended up with an entity as mind-numbing as ICANN. Even its name — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — seems intentionally designed to deflect healthy curiosity.

So, why am I writing a column about something so boring — and more to the point, why does this issue of Interactive Week dedicate some 5,000 words to the subject?

First, the decisions made by this arcane enterprise affect every Internet user — and the more our readers have invested in Internet enterprises, the more vulnerable they are to the whims, wiles and ways of ICANN. Just ask Bruce Springsteen. Certainly no e-commerce mogul, The Boss might seem an unlikely casualty of this group. Yet last week, following procedures established by ICANN in 1999, the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization ruled he did not have a legal right to the domain name, because a Canadian fan club had already registered it. To date, WIPO has settled roughly 1,300 such cases, and about 80 percent have resulted in the ownership of sites being transferred. The dollars at stake are immeasurable.

Second is our need to resolve a far more fundamental issue: Who should govern the Internet? The U.S. government financed the invention, development and initial installation of the Internets precursor, ARPANet, as an academic communications network — not incidentally with important military applications. But when the Clinton administration privatized the Internet in the mid-1990s, it quickly exploded into a global network of not just communication, but commerce. As the financial stakes rocketed upward, questions of ownership and control grew more amorphous. The Internet defied sovereign national boundaries. Who would run it?

In privatizing the Internet, the U.S. gave a Virginia company, Network Solutions Inc., or NSI, a lucrative monopoly over assigning domain names. But much like a telephone directory, those names are useful only when theyre matched to a number — in this case, the 12-digit Internet Protocol (IP) address. The assigning of those numbers was left to one man, the late Jon Postel, who had handled that responsibility for academia. Whats more, the government retained ownership of the "root server," the actual telephone directory that feeds name-to-number translations to servers worldwide.

Magaziners solution to undoing this unwieldy system was ICANN, a private, not-for-profit corporation that would break NSIs monopoly by choosing "registrars," companies from around the globe empowered to assign domain names. ICANN would be given Postels authority to assign IP addresses. When ICANN had evolved from a government-created group to a democratically selected body representing international business, technical and legal interests, the U.S. would turn over ownership and control of the root server, and the foundation of the Internet would become self-governing.

At least thats what we were led to believe. In this issue, International Editor Juliana Gruenwald and Investigative Reporter Rory OConnor reveal evidence that ICANN may have been something of an exercise in smoke and mirrors — the governments way of delegating the dirty work of undoing NSIs monopoly, which became an extremely nasty battle, while intending all along to keep control of the root server, the real source of power over the Internet.

Now that Clinton and Magaziner are history, the future of Internet governance will be decided by the Bush administration. Which face of the Republican Janus will win out — the xenophobic "we built it, we own it" face or the laissez-faire "keep government out of business" face? Stay tuned. The whole world is watching, and mind-numbing ICANN is about to get very interesting.