[alac] Economist Editorial
FYI, I thought this was excellent. -- Bret ------- Internet governance America rules OK Oct 6th 2005 From The Economist print edition Plans for global management of the internet are a threat to its future WHY should America control the internet? A growing number of governments are asking this apparently reasonable question. At a diplomatic meeting last week in Geneva, the European Union unexpectedly dropped its support for the current arrangement, and sided with America's critics (see article). America could now find itself isolated as negotiations over future regulation of the internet continue. The critics' point of view seems quite understandable. The internet is not just a hugely important tool of global communication but also an engine of economic growth. Other countries quite understandably balk at American hegemony over something that matters so much to their future. Yet although America's exercise of power in the bricks-and-mortar world may not always have been flawless, its oversight of the internet, which it invented (Tim Berners-Lee, a Briton, is sometimes credited with the feat, but he created the world wide web) has been remarkably benign. That's probably partly because politics has been kept out of it. The longer it stays that way, the better. Benign neglect Most people think of the internet as decentralised and thus uncontrollable. That's largely true; nevertheless, its infrastructure requires some co-ordination, so it needs a bit of governance. This is currently done by a non-profit group called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This organisation operates under a contract from the American government, and consults private-sector firms and groups of techies and users. Much of ICANN's work is boringly technical. It co-ordinates such features as domain names (like .com or .net), routing numbers and technical standards. But small technical details can sometimes have big political ramifications, and ICANN has often found itself embroiled in controversy. For example, many countries were outraged when ICANN considered creating a .xxx domain name for pornographic websites. (It diplomatically put the idea on hold.) Nevertheless, ICANN's stewardship has succeeded because its focus has been not on politics, but on making the network as efficient as possible. The sometimes fierce debates that break out among techies have been conducted transparently. The result has been an internet open to innovation and free expression, led mostly by the private sector and relatively free from government interference. Yet because the system runs under American auspices, other countries are unhappy with this arrangement. Many of those who want to relieve America of its control think ICANN's job should be taken over by a United Nations agency. To anybody who has spent much time observing the UN at work, this sounds like a poor idea. It is no accident that the world's telephone systems remained so expensive and static for so long. They have been heavily regulated nationally and their international links have been controlled by the International Telecommunication Union, a UN body which once rejected the idea of the internet in favour of a more controllable and less efficient system. That standard never amounted to much. The ITU's approach reflected the interests of state-run telecom monopolies, which themselves are now being shaken to their foundations by the internet. It is also no accident that many of the countries loudest in their demands for the internet to be taken out of American hands are those, such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, that are keenest on restricting its use by their own citizens. These and many other countries are hoping to use the lead-up to the UN's World Summit on the Information Society to begin to wrest control away from America. By changing its position last week the EU had hoped to act as a âbridgeâ between America and other countries. Instead, it has simply isolated America, with potentially damaging results. America has offered olive branches to its critics. This summer, it acknowledged that other countries have sovereignty over their national addresses, and said it would never disrupt the system (ie, kick France's .fr address offline). And, at the meeting last week in Geneva, it supported the idea of a forum in which all governments can discuss these matters in an âevolutionary processâ. That sounds like an excellent scheme: just as startling as the speed of technological development is the slowness of decision-making in international forums. If this move works, it should succeed in parking the issue harmlessly for many years.