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Averting the Internet Meltdown

A call to action went out: a small, California-based organization called People for Internet Responsibility (PFIR) posted an announcement for an urgent conference - “Preventing the Internet Meltdown.”

The meltdown that PFIR envisioned was not an impending technical malfunction or enemy attack. Instead, conference organizers foresaw “risks of imminent disruption” to the Internet that would come from an unlikely sector: government officials and bureaucrats working on the unglamorous-sounding problems of Internet Governance.

1.0 The Participants

If anyone would know about imminent risks facing the Internet’s architecture, it would be the participants at PFIR’s conference. Veterans of ARPANet, Bell Labs, and ICANN, many of the participants at the Los Angeles conference helped build and maintain the network it its early days.

Participants agreed that ICANN ? the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the organization originally tasked with handling technical regulation of the Internet ? is no longer the lead player in the march toward Internet governance. Scott Bradner, Senior Technology Consultant for Harvard University, laid out a foundational premise for the conference in his opening remarks: “the value of this conference is inversely proportional to the amount of time spent bashing ICANN.” (For background on the history of ICANN and Internet Governance, see this paper.)

2.0 The New Contenders

Instead, discussion focused on the other players poised to impose regulations on the Internet. Entities ranged from Microsoft to the Chinese government, but participants spent the most time addressing two main actors: the United Nations and the U.S. government.

A number of participants expressed concern about the increasing role of U.N. subcommittees in Internet governance. As Richard Hill, a conference attendee and Counselor for the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU), reported, a new UN-sponsored group has been tasked with tackling the problem of governance. The Working Group on Internet Governance, a committee formed during last year’s UN summit on the Internet, will meet in late September to hammer out a definition for Internet governance and the projects the group will address.

Until more is known about the committee, it is difficult to forecast what role the UN will play. But a number of attendees seemed skeptical about top-down regulation from a UN agency.

Susan Crawford, Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School, described the benefits of a peer-produced system of governance over the distant and less accountable U.N. model (for details on the peer-produced system, see the paper she co-authored, The Accountable Net). Crawford noted that missing this opportunity by waiting for a UN ruling would be “a shame.”

Conference-goers also expressed concern about the U.S. government’s increasing role in Internet regulation. Since September 11th, momentum toward surveillance and Homeland security has pushed a number of agencies to lobby for new laws policing Internet communications.

John Morris of the Center for Democracy and Technology laid out a concrete example of this trend: the Department of Justice recently lobbied the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue new regulations that would enable wire-tapping of emerging Internet-phone services.

Exactly as Morris forecasted, several days after the conference, the FCC issued a ruling that voice-over Internet protocol (VOIP) phones would indeed be subjected to similar wire-tapping provisions as landlines.

Crawford and other attendees acknowledged that a certain amount of regulation is inevitable. “We cannot keep insisting that nothing needs to change,” she explained. But attendees were most worried that bureaucrats and politicians will issue sweeping regulations without understanding of the underlying technology and the importance of the Internet’s end-to-end architecture.

The remainder of the conference focused on ways to make this case to would-be regulators.

3.0 The Marketing Campaign

Messaging, marketing, and image are not the usual domain of technophiles. But as Lauren Weinstein, a co-founder of PFIR argued, the threat of regulation is so dire that action is essential.

“The clocks are ticking for all of us,” Weinstein said. “We must shift our focus from the stuff we love ? the bits and the bytes ? to the policy.”

But conference-goers seemed unsure about how best to change the policy.

“Unless you’re representing some company, you won’t get heard on the Hill,” explained one participant.

Several others echoed this sentiment: “We’re nice show pieces in committees,” said another attendee. But lawmakers rarely listen to the counsel, he added.

Jim Tozzi, a veteran political insider, defended the position of lawmakers. “I don’t think it’s our responsibility to reach out to the techies,” he told other attendees. “It’s your responsibility to tell us.”

In the interest of doing exactly this, participants generated a list of the specific problems addressed during the conference. As the last sessions drew to a close, participants seemed divided about which problems constituted the greatest threat or whether any of them were serious enough to warrant warning of a meltdown.

Wendy Seltzer of the Electronic Frontier Foundation cautioned that words like “meltdown” can generate paranoia that becomes counter productive. Too much hype is exactly what makes regulators “jump in” when they’re not necessary, she explained.

In the weeks ahead, the UN Working Group will carve off its slice of Internet governance, the FCC will plod ahead with VOIP regulation, and other decentralized entities will continue heaping rules on the decentralized net.

To the original architects of the system, slapping regulations on the network makes both bad policy and cumbersome technology. At the moment, few government regulators are listening to their objections.

PFIR will take its call to action to wider audiences. As one attendee argued, some might see the calls of danger as a “last gasp of the old guard,” as power has moved out of the technologists’ hands and into the domain of regulators.

Les Earnest, Senior Research Scientist Emeritus at Stanford University and a veteran of the military-academia partnerships that helped launch the web, offered a more balanced perspective: “The Internet is not about to meltdown,” he said on the last day of meetings. “It’s just evolving.” He urged to group to focus on the opportunities to influence the future, rather than past mistakes or exaggerated forecasts of disaster.

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