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The Internet And Open Architecture: Determining How To Replace ICANN

“Forms grow out of principles and operate to continue the principles they grow from.”
Thomas Paine, “The Rights of Man”

The debate over what management structure is needed to transform ICANN has moved from “Foreign Affairs” and some online discussions to the halls of Oxford University. Last week there was a one day event at Oxford on how to transform ICANN. There was also a meeting in Berlin on these issues. The coverage of these is limited to the few online publications that can afford to send reporters.

Just as ICANN’s origins are shrouded in secrecy, the discussion and plans to transform ICANN go on in secret, with a few public events happening to hint that there may be some changes afoot. With such a closed process, any future versions of ICANN promise to be based on similarly flawed models of undemocratic processes and organizational forms, as merely new varieties of the secretive and top down processes of ICANN.

There is a fundamental difference between ICANN and any plans for future ICANNs, and the basis on which the Internet and Usenet were constructed. In this article I will begin to explore this difference.

Architecture of the Internet:

The Internet grew up from an architectural form that provided for communication and collaboration. There were different national entities that were part of this process. Researchers from the U.S., Great Britain, and Norway collaborated to create working versions of the Internet protocol TCP/IP. Computer scientists from other countries like France participated when possible.

These researchers were part of an open and public process that made it possible for them to contribute to the ongoing development in an active and valuable way. They were part of a prototype providing for collaboration and meaningful participation of researchers from a few different nations. This prototype set a basis for a broader collaboration of researchers from more nations and eventually for a network of networks that spread around the world.

The architecture of the Internet is what has come to be called “open architecture”. Following is a definition of open architecture I have written elsewhere[1]:

“Open architecture…describes the structure of the Internet, which is built on standard interfaces, protocols, a basic data format, and a uniform identifier or addressing mechanism. All the information needed regarding the interconnection aspects is publicly available.”

With the development of the Internet protocols, the networks were provided with a means for interconnection and communication which respected their diversity. There should be lessons from this process that can be applied to the creation of the management structure that is needed today for the Internet’s continuing evolution.

In the same article I describe the term architecture[2]:

“Traditionally, the word architecture refers to the framework guiding the construction of a structure or system. It describes the vital elements of the whole and the rules for interconnection among components. In the case of computer networks, the challenge in designing an open architecture system is to provide local autonomy, the possibility of interconnecting heterogeneous systems, and communication across uniform interfaces. Providing a basic format for data and a common addressing mechanism makes possible data transmission across the boundaries of dissimilar networks.”

The main aspect is that architecture sets out the framework for construction. In the case of the Internet, this framework is one which provides for what is needed to communicate when there are dissimilar networks with boundaries that have to be recognized. It identifies the areas that require public and collaborative efforts to create an operational means for intercommunication and interconnection.

Just as a business plan must match the business, the Internet’s management structure must match its architecture.

Where Does Sovereignty Lie?

The question of deciding where sovereignty will reside will guide what institutional or organizational form will be created.

The current ICANN structure has a hidden form of sovereignty. The decisions are made by some secret process. During a presentation at the National Academy of Science, Mike Roberts, then CEO of ICANN, said that decisions were made in consultation with a few key stakeholders. Who these were or what the process was, he didn’t elaborate (see Behind Closed Doors: Planning the Next Generation DNS?).

Baird’s “Foreign Affairs” article on ICANN proposes that there be some new organizational form in which corporations, governments and nonprofits can send representatives. Once again, who makes the decisions is likely to continue to be a mystery. Who is represented by each of these organizations may also be a mystery.

The researchers from different nations who worked together to develop the TCP/IP protocol were supported, to varying degrees, by their governments. It was with the researchers that the sovereignty resided, along with the office within the US government that gave leadership to the Internet’s development. This office was called the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO). While the sovereignty resided within the research community and the IPTO, it did not reside in some government(s) at large. There are different entities within governments and it is crucial to understand whether there is an entity that is particularly appropriate for a given responsibility. From the beginning of the Internet, government played a big role. The IPTO gathered, guided, and supported researchers over many years on a scale sufficient to develop an international Internet. The researcher community and the IPTO, and the relation between them, were the determiners of the development of the Internet, with the larger institutional forms, like their governments or academic institutions, as entities which could and sometimes did, provide for their support.

Who are the equivalent today of the researchers and the IPTO who built the Internet? As the Internet developed, not only researchers, but users came online and began to utilize the forms and structures that the researchers had created. Among these were users who found ways to contribute to the Internet’s development. Similarly, in the development of Usenet, not only the original programmers who created and developed the Usenet software, but also a number of users, found ways to contribute to its development (see Early Usenet 1981-2: Creating the Broadsides for Our Day). At the time there was also an acceptable use policy (AUP) for the Internet by governments like the U.S. which protected the users to be able to contribute to the online community (see “Imminent Death of the Net Predicted”, in “Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet,” IEEE Computer Society, 1997, pg 219-220).

In doing research online in 1992, a student recognized the contributions and participation of these active users and called these users “net.citizens” or “netizens”. During this period the Net’s sovereignty was with these users or netizens. It was they who contributed the discussion and other content and software for the Net’s continuing development. A number of these users were in the technical community, but not all users or all in the technical community were netizens. During this period, there was protection by government for these netizens and their contributions to the Internet and Usenet.

Who are those who contribute to the Internet’s continued growth and development today? Who are those for whom the broader interest of the Internet is important and who can participate in making decisions which will reflect this broader interest? These are but some of the questions that can help to broaden the needed public discussion to determine a new management structure for the Internet.

[1] Ronda Hauben, “Open Architecture”, in Raul Rojas (ed),“Encyclopedia of Computers and Computer History”, Fitzroy Dearborn, Chicago, 2001. vol. 2 pg 592.

[2] 1bid.

By Ronda Hauben, Author & Researcher

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