The regular meetings of the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—known as ICANN, the folks who make Internet domain names work as well as they do—have long been one of the tech communitys better held secrets.
Its actual work is incorrectly dismissed as mind-numbingly dull, but ICANN has built a solid reputation for great travel opportunities. Need an excuse to visit Shanghai? ICANN would provide. How about Paris? Same. Ever been to Buenos Aires? Get on an ICANN advisory committee and you can see Argentina.
As the Internet has gone from a collaborative effort of like-minded scientists to an online marketplace for goods and ideas, serving people around the globe, ICANN has pretty much been left alone to do its work. Its done it pretty well too, making sure the numeric IP addresses that computers on the Net use operate efficiently and accurately, assigning country domains and generally making sure everythings running smoothly on the open protocols that make the Internet what it is today. The spirit embedded in the original domain naming system—the handy openness of TCP/IP—has been baked into ICANNs view of its stewardship.
But all the quiet fun and games—not to mention the low-profile work and decision-making—might be coming to an end. Next month, at a meeting in Tunisia, a United Nations summit is going to take a look at what ICANN does with an eye toward eventually taking away U.S. control of the public-private partnership.
As a result, that part of the world where the tech business meets politics is going to get another shake-up.
The argument against U.S. control of the ICANN has a number of nuances, but here are the basics: Smaller nations would like to see control of the Internet moved out of the United States to the United Nations or some other non- or multi-government agency.
Why? Well, many countries look at U.S. control of the Internet and wonder if the worlds superpower might not use the influence it has over the Internet for less-than-benign purposes. Yes, some of these same nations are more interested in figuring out if the Internet can be controlled in a way that allows governments to keep “undesirable” information away from their citizens. And some, of course, would like better surveillance capability of dissidents and other “troublemakers.”
Thats why human rights and other activists working online believe that keeping control of ICANN in this country is vital for their work and the work of other dissidents online.
Support for moving ICANN out of U.S. controls comes, in part, from the poor image that the United States has abroad as a result of the Iraqi war. Thats no doubt contributed to the support the European Union has given to the idea of moving ICANN and its domain root server out from under of U.S. control.
Other objections to U.S. control are fueled by concerns about national security. Countries openly worried about U.S. control of the Internets management systems include Iran, Cuba and China. Its no coincidence that invading Iran, getting into a war with China or “taking back” Cuba once Castro dies have all been openly discussed in the United States as viable options for future intervention.
Still, the ICANN dispute threatens to undercut a handy argument that many tech executives have made to justify doing business on terms set by countries that endorse and embrace censorship. The tech argument is that corporations must comply with the laws of the countries in which they do business. What usually goes unsaid in these conversations is the understanding that the Net—as its currently architected—cant be controlled; that information, once released, can travel anywhere, at any time.
Thats the wink-wink business folks employ to reassure themselves—and their shareholders—that a little cooperation for the sake of increased revenue isnt such a bad thing.
Moving ICANN out of the United States could cut the ground out from under that rationalization. The work being done online to move democracy to countries with oppressive regimes cant work if ICANN is subject to demands or political trade-offs made by those very nations. Of course, holding the organization hostage to political trade-offs made in this country is just as wrong-headed and short-sighted.
Thats why, eventually, ICANN should be released from U.S. control. But it shouldnt happen just yet. And the businesses benefiting from the current system should stand up and say as much.
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. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog. She can be reached at email@example.com.