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Does the Internet Need to be Governed?

In its earlier years, the Internet was simply a tool for the research and education community to explore new ways of sharing computing power, software, and information by way of electronic mail (which became a popular application around 1971 on one of the Internet’s predecessors, the ARPANET). The approximately one billion users of the Internet today have the same range of interests as the general population in most countries. The side-effect of this wide spread use is that abuses have arisen that are not unlike the kinds of abuses one finds in other societal settings. Fraud, misinformation, harassment, illegal transactions, theft of resources, breaking and entering (hacking into computers), copyright infringement, and many other exact or approximate electronic analogs of improper behavior can be found on the Internet. Such problems plainly raise public policy concerns among governments and stimulated much interest during the many talks associated with the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

The term “Internet Governance” has become an area of particular attention in part as a consequence of widespread recognition that the Internet represents an important area of national interest for all countries seeking to participate in the benefits of global electronic commerce, distance learning, access to the encyclopedic wealth of information on the Internet, and in the social dimension that the Internet is creating. From the perspective of governments, the Internet is simultaneously a technology that promises high economic value for parties making use of it and a challenge in that it is unlike all other telecommunications media previously invented.

While traditional telephony, broadcast radio and television and cable television, as well as satellite communication have tended to evolve in a regulated setting, the Internet has been a “grass-roots” phenomenon, operating essentially above the traditional regulated environment. Internet runs on top of the telephone network, or its underlying dedicated circuitry. It works on broadcast and point-to-point radio, point-to-point satellite, optical transmission links and virtually any other communications medium. It was designed to work that way. As a consequence, it has had the advantage of rapid innovation by users at the “edge” of the network, largely without much or any regulatory interference. Indeed, because much of the flexibility of the Internet is a consequence of its dependence on software running in devices at the edge of the network, rather than in systems embedded in the net, virtually anyone is free to invent new applications and to put them up for use. The World Wide Web, which entered the Internet picture around 1992, though it was invented a few years earlier, provided a gigantic opportunity for virtually anyone to share information with everyone else on the Internet.

These aspects of the Internet have stimulated considerable attention, especially in the government sector in recent years. Moreover, as the Internet becomes increasingly accessible around the world, its applications and uses begin to reflect the interests of the general population. Where computers and computer-based systems go, networking is not far behind. This is especially so as wireless technologies make it less and less expensive to provide connectivity for voice communications (mobiles) and for data communication (“hot spots” using wireless local area networks).

In a sense, ICANN has become the only globally visible body charged with any kind of oversight for the Internet. The scope of this oversight responsibility was deliberately and intentionally limited in the process of the creation of ICANN. But as the Internet continues to grow, as domain names become increasingly visible in the context of the World Wide Web, and as the so-called “dot.com” bubble expanded between 1998 and early 2000 and then burst, many people with concerns or complaints about problems associated with the Internet or use uses (and abuses) have turned to ICANN expecting it to address many of these issues.

Not surprisingly, ICANN’s intentionally limited mandate and limited resources, did not outfit it with the ability to deal with such complaints as spam (unsolicited commercial electronic mail), fraud, theft, pornography, and the long list of other abuses that creative human beings have invented for the Internet. Though intense discussions about Internet policy (or “governance”) frequently reference ICANN, it has become apparent that the topic of governance is far more expansive than the limited role ICANN plays in the operation of the Internet. These responsibilities of ICANN are often carried out through the cooperative efforts of other groups such as the system of voluntary root servers and the work of the Regional Internet address Registries (RIRs), and domain name registries and registrars around the world. While these functions appear on the surface to be quite straightforward, they have policy ramifications that make them more complex. Who should be assigned the responsibility for operating a top level domain name service? Which addresses should be placed in the root zone file? Who should be allowed to register any particular domain name in a top level domain? Are there any restrictions on registrations? How can character sets other than simple Latin characters be introduced into domain names? Where should the root servers be located? What should be the policy for allocation and assignment of Internet address space? How should that policy be developed? It is because these questions are not simple that ICANN has formed a rich system of supporting organizations and forums in which to air such policy issues and seek to develop consensus around them.

In the course of the WSIS discussions, the full breadth of the term “Internet Governance” was sometimes confused with the narrower scope of ICANN responsibility. During the next phase of WSIS, culminating in late 2005 in Tunisia, it is vital that the discussion takes into account that the range of Internet governance questions requires a much broader system of practices, agreements and policies than are encompassed in ICANN’s mandate. Nor does it seem appropriate to seek to expand that mandate to accommodate areas that should be the province of domestic and international governmental concern. The participants in the WSIS and associated WGIG discussions have a significant task ahead of them. Dealing with the many public policy interests arising from the rapid growth of Internet requires that many of the issues lying outside ICANN’s responsibility find venues in which they can be addressed. Intellectual property protection concerns might be addressed in the World Intellectual Property Organization and perhaps the World Trade Organization. Concerns for criminal use of the Internet may be taken up in organizations such as Interpol among others. Many of the concerns may be addressed domestically but because of its global nature and relative insensitivity to national boundaries, resolving these issues may require cooperation among governments or non-governmental but international organizations for their solution.

There is a vast range of policy issues concerning which ICANN has no charter. To facilitate the use of the Internet for global electronic commerce, it would be beneficial to develop international procedures for the use of digital signatures, mechanisms to resolve disputes associated with international electronic transactions, treatment of various transaction taxes in an international setting and the protection of intellectual property held in digital formats and distributed globally through the Internet medium. These are not new problems; rather, they are old problems emerging in a new medium.

It has been suggested by some participants in the WSIS discussions that the role of ICANN might be undertaken by the traditional International Telecommunications Union (ITU). While the ITU has served the world as the international forum for the handling of many international issues associated with traditional tele-communications, the Internet has disrupted the neat categorization of various telecommunications media. It is the potential bearer of every form of communication. ICANN has evolved international processes and structures over the last six years to cope with a limited set of issues associated with this rich, complex and rapidly evolving infrastructure. The world needs an effective and well-supported ICANN but the participants in the World Summit on the Information Society and the Working Group on Internet Governance now need to turn their attention to the full panoply of public policy issues that, as discussed above, lie outside the mandate of ICANN. These need a thorough and open airing in this next phase of the World Summit on the Information Society.

By Vint Cerf, Vice President & Chief Internet Evangelist, Google Inc.

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