Academics Take Sides in ICANN Tug of War

News Analysis: Experts debate whether the United States should share stewardship of the Internet.

The quest for political control over the Internet continues, as the U.N.s World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia on Nov. 16 approaches.

This week, a group of academics suggested that there be a "denationalization" of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the organization responsible for running the Internet under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

But some law and public policy experts told Ziff Davis Internet that foreign calls for "denationalization" of the Internet are off the mark, and that stewardship of ICANN should remain with the United States.

The academics, all members of a group calling itself the Internet Governance Project, produced a policy concept paper this week that suggests what they term "neutral" ways to handle the issue of Internet governance.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read about the outcome of the lawsuit between ICANN and VeriSign.

The lead authors of the paper are professors Hans Klein from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Milton Meuller from Syracuse University.

The report, called "Political Oversight of ICANN," said U.S. political oversight over the Internet should end, but the United States should continue to keep policy authority over the DNS (Domain Name System) root zone file.

These root servers guide requests to the massive databases that contain addresses for all the individual top level domains, such as ".com" and ".net."

"It is a myth that U.S. oversight is completely neutral and intrinsically harmless," the report said. One example is ICANNs decision to delay the creation of a .xxx top level domain for adult content, motivated by lobbyists from domestic religious groups close to the Bush administration.

The authors suggest that ICANN could be retooled to meet the demands of "many governments" to be allowed to take part in policy making and supervision, by allowing "equal participation" on its board and establishing clear, transparent and predictable rules and procedures.

Other recommendations of the report:

  • Changing the Memorandum of Understanding for ICANN to allow for multilateral governance;
  • Letting parties other than governments participate in Internet governance
  • Subjecting the ICANN to independent audits to ensure financial integrity;
  • Changing the operating agreement with VeriSign Inc., which manages servers for DNS.

Some experts, on the other hand, do not buy into the idea of "denationalizing" the Web, however good the intentions may seem on the surface.

They note that governments, including China, first raised the issue of U.S. dominance of the Internets domain name system, not the academics themselves.

"The U.S. has an extraordinarily good record of stewardship with respect to the Internet, which, under certain basic ground rules, has grown to be the most free, open and successful channel of communication the world has ever known," said Joseph A. Morris, an attorney in Chicago who served as a delegate to a U.N. conference in Geneva back in the 1980s, and at the Reagan White House.

Morris added that under American leadership, reasonable rules have already emerged, governing the control of domain names and setting the rules for resolving disputes. A system of Internet law, meantime, is evolving, and there are neutral legal forums available to air grievances and right wrongs.

"If there was ever a time to invoke the maxim, If it aint broke, dont fix it, this is it," said Morris, who also served as a senior official in the Justice Department in Washington.

/zimages/4/28571.gifTo read technology and politics columnist Chris Nolans views on who should control ICANN, click here.

Another expert, Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, said the warring parties involved in the Internet governance dispute need to stand down and step back for a moment. There is the worry that behind the U.N. and the European Unions plays to wrest control of the ICANN away from the United States are hidden motivators.

"The Internet is an agreement to use a small number of communications protocols, and it needs almost no governance at all," Harper said.

Despite such concerns, the call to transfer the governance of the Internet and assignment of domain names from ICANN to the U.N.s ITU (International Telecommunications Union) is going to be the subject of a non-binding vote later this month in Tunis, Tunisia, at the World Symposium on the Information Society.

Experts say that ICANN has actually empowered small ISPs to start up, on a shoestring budget, in small villages in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and the current system has served those nations well.

"That is one reason why it has raised the ire of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in these regions, who, above all, seek control of information flow within their borders," said Steven Titsch, senior fellow for IT and telecom policy at the Heartland Institute, a think tank based in Chicago.

There are serious business, technological and political consequences that may emerge if the U.N. takes command of the Internet. Another expert—Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a think tank that is accredited as a non-governmental organization with the U.N. for the WSIS talks—said he fears that the Internet is about to become a mere bargaining chip in international diplomacy.

"U.N. member nations would quickly realize that they could hold hostage changes to the Internet in exchange for something entirely unrelated that they want," said Giovanetti, who the other week was in Geneva for the preparations for the U.N. Summit. "Such as changes in agriculture policy, or increases in U.S. foreign aid, or debt relief. The Internet would become a pawn in geopolitical squabbles."

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