FT Briefing: Internet governance

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The debate over internet governance dates back to the very early days of the network. First developed in 1969 by the US military, the internet was designed to withstand attack through its “distributed” design – if part of the network was destroyed, the remainder would continue to function.

The internet became popular with academics and researchers in the 1970s and the 1980s. In the 1990s the advent of the worldwide web and cheaper home computers turned it into the ubiquitous network we know today.

However in order for the internet to work the naming and addressing system it uses must be managed; each domain name (such as ft.com) must direct every internet user to the same destination.

In its early days, this administration was done on an ad-hoc, voluntary basis, mostly by computer science academics. When the internet’s popularity soared in the late 1990s, the US Department of Commerce mandated a non-profit organisation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to formalise this administration.

Icann was formed with the intention of transferring the domain name system from US control to the global community, but the US government in June confirmed it wanted to maintain control of the network.

Icann also administers the 13 “root servers” – large computers that maintain the definitive index of domain names and their corresponding destinations, and filter the information down through the rest of the network.

The organisation quickly became controversial, partly because internet domain names became hot property as the dotcom stock boom led many companies to register hundreds of domain names on a speculative basis. Icann takes a consultative approach to determining policy but is often the focus of criticism from its many stakeholders, which include companies, non-US governments and non-profit organisations.

Icann’s income comes from several sources, predominantly from the fee it levies on the registration of domain names and other underlying internet addresses. Its staff and board include members from around the world, but are mostly from the US and have backgrounds in internet technology, law or commerce. The board line-up has included well-known internet “elders” such as Vint Cerf, co-designer of the technology on which today’s internet runs.

By contrast, the telephone numbering system is run by the International Telecommunications Union, an organisation affiliated to the United Nations.

Critics argue that the ITU is slow and bureaucratic, but its supporters say it is stable and, unlike Icann, is rarely accused of going beyond its technical-only policy.

Pressure for change

Momentum had long been building for a less US-centric approach to internet governance. Along with day-to-day decisions about domain name administration, two particularly controversial issues are the control of national domain extensions (such as .uk or .ru), and the introduction of domain names in character sets that support different languages, such as Mandarin or Arabic.

Non-US governments are represented on Icann’s Government Advisory Committee, but critics argue this has limited power.

Icann was set up with the intention of shifting internet administration from the US government to the global internet community, and the organisation has tried to make its secretariat more international. However in June the US government said it had no intention of allowing Icann to become independent, arguing it would become bound by bureaucracy which could stifle innovation.

WSIS Tunisia

The World Summit on the Information Society was formed by a United Nations resolution in 2001 with the broad aim of addressing information technology, global development and the “digital divide”. The first phase of the summit was held in Geneva in 2003, and the second is under way in Tunisia.

Several countries including Iran, China and Saudi Arabia, have argued that internet governance should be truly international, with Icann either dismantled or altered to include formal representation for each country. The EU had also made strident objections to the continuing US role in internet governance, but softened its stance ahead of the WSIS meeting in Tunisia.

On the first night of the Tunisia meeting, forum negotiators agreed to the creation of a new Internet Governance Forum which will have international representation. It will discuss public policy issues, but have little power over areas controlled by existing bodies such as Icann.

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