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The Internet And Its Governance: Where Should We Look For Models?

The US Department of Commerce (DOC) has recently signed a new contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) for one more year. ICANN and the DOC are to continue to work together to design an organizational form that is suitable to administer and control the infrastructure of the Internet. That infrastructure includes the IP numbers, which are critical to the functioning of the Internet protocol TCP/IP. These numbers must be unique for the Internet to continue to function. The infrastructure also includes the protocols that make the Internet possible. Protocols involve the conventions or agreements that each network that is part of the Internet accepts in order to make communication possible across the boundaries of the different technical and political and administrative entities that comprise the networks of the Internet. Another component of the Internet’s infrastructure is the domain name system (DNS). This system includes the names that identify various sites on the Internet and the translation of those names into IP numbers via the system of computers that make the one to one mapping between names and numbers.

This infrastructure is crucial for the functioning of the Internet. Historically this infrastructure has developed as the Internet has been developed. Through this evolution, this infrastructure has been under the control of computer scientists supported by governments. The least critical aspect of this infrastructure is the DNS. The Internet could function using IP numbers in place of the names, just as telephone addressing is in general by numbers, rather than names. But the IP numbers and protocols are critical to the functioning of the Internet.

In 1998, before the formation of ICANN, the advisor to the US President on Internet matters was Ira Magaziner. Magaziner came to various meetings of Internet users. One such meeting was a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland in 1998 of the Internet Society. At this meeting, Magaziner claimed that the U.S. government was going to turn the infrastructure of the Internet over to the Internet community. What could this mean? How could the U.S. government achieve such an end? This was the question to Magaziner. He responded that the Internet community should agree on a structure for the administration, ownership, and control of the critical infrastructure.

This was like telling some of the people who now drive cars that they should come up with a system for registering license plate numbers for the cars. Or it was like telling them they should come up with a system for testing drivers.

The latter are administrative functions of government. Such functions are critical to the use of automobiles in a country. It would not be appropriate for government officials to go to meetings of car users and tell them that government was divesting itself of its administrative obligations to oversee a system of travel utilizing cars.

The question is then raised “Why would the U.S. government propose to change the system of ownership, control and administration of the critical infrastructure of the Internet? This question needs to be examined and discussed in future articles.

Another stipulation that Magaziner made was that this management structure had to be “private”. No government officials or entities could be part of this management structure. Only “private” individuals could be part of the new management form.

The U.S. government was not raising the question of “What should be the role of government in the management of the Internet’s infrastructure?” It was not raising the question of “What are the crucial concerns to consider when formulating a plan for the management of the Internet’s infrastructure?” Instead the one criteria set was that this management structure be “private”.

Did this criteria keep the U.S. government or other governments from being involved in the process to change the Internet’s management structure? There has been evidence that the answer is “No”. Documents from the U.S. government during this period show that Magaziner and other U.S. government officials met with officials of other government entities and planned how to create this new supposedly “private” management structure.

The result is the creation of ICANN. There is unanimous agreement, including ICANN officials themselves, that the creation and development of ICANN is not an appropriate management structure for the Internet’s infrastructure.

What then would be an appropriate management structure? How can research be done to determine the needed structure?

In 1998, there were questions raised to Magaziner about the form that was being proposed for managing the Internet’s infrastructure. Among such questions was the problem that the Internet had been developed under government support for scientific collaboration. The new management structure, the “private” structure, would be a departure from the Internet’s heritage.

At the time Magaziner claimed that the proposal for ICANN was in line with the development of the Internet. In an email, he wrote:

“I…don’t understand why a stakeholder based, private, non-profit organization with an international board to coordinate the technical management of the domain name system is not consistent with the history and traditions of the Internet. The IETF and IAB have this kind of structure, though admittedly their situations are less complex because the issues they deal with have a narrower set of stakeholders. There are more stakeholders now than there used to be, but the principles we are trying to use are the same. Please tell me what you think should be done differently…” Ira Magaziner, Email, August 5, 1998

The development of ICANN and its record have shown that it has not been created according to principles that led to the creation of structures like the IETF and the IAB. There is no longer any mention of the process of how the IETF and IAB were developed by those who are involved in ICANN. Instead they claim that their problems stem from the fact that there are no models for what they are doing. Or if there are models to be introduced, these are models that are foreign to the history and development of the Internet. In fact those who are creating such models are not interested in the history and development of the Internet, nor in the nature of its technology. A recent study by the Centre for Global Studies in Canada, funded by the Markle Foundation begins “ICANN is a unique structure. There is no parallel for this public-private corporation with its regulatory functions that have material consequences across a broad spectrum of interests… Critics have characterized ICANN’s actions as ‘taxation without representation’ and as not subject to the rules of law, there being no apparent mechanism, other than recourse to the courts, for limiting its powers…” from “Enhancing Legitimacy in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers… Report to the Markle Foundation”, September 18, 2002.

While there is a 30-year history of the development of the Internet, it is interesting to see how those proposing or developing a new management structure for the Internet’s infrastructure do not examine the nature of the Internet and its development. Nor do they consider how any new structure can build on the lessons learned through the development of the Internet itself. While Magaziner claimed that was a goal, no efforts have been made to pursue this goal. And the goal itself has been lost now.

I want to propose that any management structure or organization that disregards the nature of the Internet and its development cannot be appropriate for the functioning of the Internet. When the General Accounting Office (GAO) of the U.S. government was doing a report about ICANN, they recognized that the Internet is unique in that it was built under the support of governments. Like the GAO, those proposing to create an appropriate body to manage the Internet’s infrastructure would benefit from studying the previous development of the Internet and learning from the lessons of its development.

Thus far, neither the U.S. Department of Commerce, nor ICANN, nor organizations like the Markle Foundation offer any indication of being interested in understanding the foundations of the Internet.

If the U.S. Department of Commerce is indeed trying to design an appropriate institutional form for the management of the Internet’s infrastructure, it will need to examine the nature of the Internet and its development. And it will need to explore what the lessons are that can help in the process of creating an appropriate management structure for the Internet’s infrastructure.

By Ronda Hauben, Author & Researcher

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