The Spoilers and the Web

14 November 2005

The Spoilers and the Web

By Gwynne Dyer

“The situation can certainly be criticised but the proposed remedies seem much worse,” said the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres, not exactly the first organisation that you would expect to rally to the US government’s position. “If there was ever a time to invoke the maxim If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, this is it,” said Joseph A. Morris, a Chicago-based lawyer who watched internet law evolve from a ringside seat as a senior official at the US Justice Department. Both were alarmed by the changes that are being considered in Tunis.

Representatives of 170 countries are in Tunisia for the World Symposium on the Information Society (16-18 November), and warnings are flying that the very future of the internet is at stake. The United Nations wants to take control of the web away from the non-profit American corporation that currently runs it and to give it instead to an international body where all the UN members would have influence on its decisions. And the most enthusiastic backers of this idea, unsurprisingly, are countries like China, Libya and Iran that want to limit free speech on the web.

The scenes in Tunis itself reinforce the notion that this conference is really a conspiracy against the free flow of information. Tunisian police rough journalists up outside the conference centre, and an alternative “Citizens’ Symposium on the Information Society” finds its reservations for hotel meeting rooms mysteriously cancelled. Seven leading Tunisian figures including the head of the Union of Tunisian Journalists are on hunger strike to demand greater freedom of speech in their own country while the world’s attention is temporarily turned their way.

The threat to the internet as a self-administering organisation has not come into being overnight. Other governments have long disliked the fact that it is run by an American non-profit organisation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), that was created and is ultimately supervised by the United States Department of Commerce. No surprise there: as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote recently in the Washington Post, “it would be naive to expect (other) governments not to take an interest” in who runs the internet.

In practice, however, the US government has let ICANN run itself, and that has given us the best of all possible worlds: independent, non-political management of the world’s key information technology. The small ICANN organisation based in the seaside Los Angeles suburb of Marina del Rey has efficiently supervised the hundredfold expansion of the internet over the past decade with no trace of prejudice or favouritism towards any country, and it only costs $15 million a year. But the good old days may be almost over.

Part of the problem resides in the United States itself.. The US statute that created ICANN in 1998 (replacing an earlier internet governing body that was also US-based) does allow for some international representation on the board of directors. But that statute is only a few months away from expiry, and the Bush administration is planning to replace it with a private for-profit corporation that would also be US-based and subject only to US law.

ICANN’s managers did not help their case for survival by proposing a new top-level domain (like .com, .net and .org) that would be called .xxx, and would be exclusively for internet pornography. Their intention was presumably to segregate the pornography in this one domain so that it didn’t keep cropping up everywhere else on the net, but it was as naive politically as it was commercially. The pornographers themselves would resist being walled off in a single domain, and ICANN gave both the Bush administration and hostile foreign governments a stick to beat it with.

Meanwhile, the control freaks who abound in every government are trying to get a stranglehold on the internet by putting it under the control of the International Telecommunications Union, a body that is ultimately answerable to the UN. By a happy accident, what began as a US Defence Department project turned into a liberating technology that exponentially increased the flow of information in the world with practically no official supervision, but the  management of the internet as we have known it is caught in a pincer movement, and this story could have an unhappy ending.

Any vote taken at this week’s symposium in Tunis would not be binding on the US government, which could continue with its plans to hand the management of the internet over to a private corporation. However, dictatorships that are eager to isolate their citizens from “corrupting influences” from abroad, including China, might use this as a pretext to create their own supervisory bodies with their own numerical codes and domain names. The internet would fragment, and the world would lose something precious.

The best outcome would be that the US government, seeing this danger, puts its own plans to privatise ICANN on hold, while the 170 governments gathered in Tunis dodge a confrontation by appointing some international commission that spends the next decade considering alternative, more international ways of managing the internet. Meanwhile the weird little organisation in Marina del  Rey could get on with its job, which it has been doing extraordinarily well, for many years to come.

Sometimes the best solution is no solution at all.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“The scenes…way”; and “ICANN’s…beat it with”)