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[alac] Economist Editorial

  • To: "'ALAC'" <alac@xxxxxxxxx>
  • Subject: [alac] Economist Editorial
  • From: Bret Fausett <bfausett@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 09 Oct 2005 06:09:16 +0000

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. 

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