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What is WSIS Getting At?

Bret Fausett points us to this article about the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) plans for a December meeting in Geneva. Attacks on ICANN are coming from several different directions, and the list of concerns includes “cybercrime and protection of intellectual property rights.”

My thoughts on this go in several directions, as usual. First, it’s not apparent to me that any government can “control” the internet—and it’s even less likely that that control can happen through the DNS. The most that governments will do will be to build walls between nations, requiring their ISPs to point only to approved sites. (China is well on its way to doing this already.) That’s not controlling the Internet, that’s creating different, national Internets. Second, control over what it takes to register a domain name won’t necessarily provide control over cybercrime or IP—domain name registrations aren’t necessary to run a p2p system, and there are lots of other ways to use networks for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and fraud that don’t involve the DNS at all.

So I’m not sure what the WSIS is getting at, or what it would mean for the ITU to “take over the Internet.” Taking it over would mean conditioning access to it, I suppose, which would only push still more communications into black markets (or “darknets”). And I really don’t understand how there could be a common vision that will serve everyone’s control needs AND provide internet access to developing countries. Finally, what does all of this have to do with ICANN?

ICANN’s functions have nothing to do with control needs or internet access, in my view. ICANN is (or ought to be) no more than a web of contracts and a forum for discussion for issues that have to do with the stability of registries and registrars. If ICANN is trying to be more than that, it shouldn’t, and it risks angering the ITU. For example, if ICANN tries to come up with some conditioning of access to domain name registrations predicated on “use of the name in connection with noninfringing content only,” it will never achieve consensus on such a rule—and, indeed, the current contracts prohibit ICANN from imposing consensus policies that have to do with the content of sites. If ICANN tries to require ccTLDs to adopt particular Whois or registrar schemes, they’ll rebel.

We seem to be lurching towards the worst end-state: an ICANN that wants to compete in popularity and in influence with the UN, and an ICANN that wants to have something to say about content on web sites and the publication of identity data. This ICANN will draw attention to itself and make the UN want to “take it over”—and will make the UN believe that there’s something meaningful to take over. Instead, we should have an ICANN of modest goals and achievements that provides a forum for discussion and a non-governmental arena for standardization of registry technical practices—and routinely opens up new TLDs of all kinds, as long as they meet minimum standards. Then individual governments can say what they want to their ISPs and their registry operators.

By Susan Crawford, Professor, Cardozo Law School in New York City

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