Tuesday, November 1

Controlling the Internet - The US, ICANN, and the UN

Unless you have been living in a cave, you already know that the member states of the UN are planning to takeover governance of the Internet. Currently there is a Corporation in California, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is responsible for managing the domain registry of the Internet.

Note that ICANN control does not extend to other countries “Country-Code Top Level Domain.” (ccTLD.) These are the Internet addresses that end with the country code of a specific country. An example would be ‘.uk’ for internet addresses using the United Kingdom’s ccTLD. So registration of Internet addresses ending in .uk are overseen by the UK and not the California Company nor the US Government. Each country has it’s own Internet country code. Approximately 38% of all websites on the Internet have a non-US ccTLD. So already 38% of the Internet is controlled by the member states of the International Community.

Some countries take responsibility for control to a higher degree than others. It is well known that China, as well as some other countries filter what their citizens can access on the Internet in addition to managing the registration of websites. Now these countries want to manage the part of the Internet not under their direct control, namely those websites that end in .com. (Like Blogger.com)

This is not the first time that the global community was concerned about US control of new technology that it developed that turned out to become very useful globally. Take the Global Positioning System (GPS.) GPS was developed and is operated by the US Military. It is now used globally for any number of purposes by users, including myself, who pay no fee to use the system. In essence, a gift to anyone willing to take advantage of it. In the past, the free signal was not as good as the signal that was available to the military, but now everyone has access to the same data. (I never noticed a difference in the quality of the data.)

However, as the GPS system is controlled and paid for by the US Government, there is always the risk that the system might be turned off for non-military users leaving them ‘lost’ for lack of a better word. We’ll forget that this has never happened, but it remain a threat to those who depend on the service.

Did the global community attempt a takeover of the system? Did they demand that the UN take over governance of GPS? No. The EU decided to develop and pay for their own system, which would not be controlled by the US. The EU and US have even cooperated concerning the EU’s Galileo positioning system. In addition, the project has received funding from non-EU countries such as China, Israel, and India. Galileo is expected to come online in 2008. By then there should be GPS receivers that will use signals from both systems. Sounds like a perfect solution, and we end up with two global positioning systems.

So, why the controversy over control of the Internet? Just like GPS, it was the US that invented the Internet and paid for a good bit of its development. Is the UN offering to pay for what they are planning on taking? Not likely. I have seen comments elsewhere that this might be an evil plan to tax the Internet through the taxing of each domain name. I don’t think so. They have other issues they want to tackle first. I suspect that they really want to go after all of the sites that show their country, and the UN, in a bad light. You see, you cannot get a press pass to access the UN if you don’t believe in the UN:

“The Department of Public Information reserves the right to deny or withdraw accreditation of journalists from media organizations whose activities run counter to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, or who abuse the privileges so extended or put the accreditation to improper use or act in a way not consistent with the principles of the Organization.” - UN

So if the UN cannot even accept dissenting viewpoints from the media, how do you think they will accept dissenting views on the Internet? If President Bush’s White House acted this way, most of the White House Press Corp would have had their WH press passes withdrawn years ago.

There is no limit to the amount of tampering that the international community could inflict on the Internet. The UN and countries might claim that a domain name cannot contain the name of their country (or UN) unless it meets some quality standard or pay a special fee. Crazy suggestion? Well the European Court just decided that cheese can only be called Feta if it is made in a certain part of Greece. Likewise, Champagne can only come from a region in France. Don’t tell that to “Great Western,” makers of New York Champagne. Thankfully NY is not part of the EU and they can call it New York Champagne if they want to. Think you can have Helsinki Feta? sure you can, but only if you make it in Greece. It does not matter if you are a Greek cheese maker. Do these items truly taste unique to a specific region? Perhaps, but different brands will taste differently so the place issue is nothing more than an attempt to brand a commodity and then protect the brand.

Now lets apply this logic to websites. The Iranian Government gets no benefit from all of the dissident sites located around the world, especially when they are more than ready to second guess the new President on items such as how to fix the decline in their stock market. They would shut all these sites down if they could. (God only knows what they would do to those who operated the sites.) However, at the moment, all they can do is try to prevent those from inside Iran from viewing these sites. The same goes for China. Thankfully these countries currently cannot prevent anyone outside their borders from viewing these sites.

One of their arguments for UN control of the Internet is very similar to the GPS argument for a separate system; The US controls access to the Internet and they can shut them out at any time. Of course there is no reason for the US to do this. The US would probably buy every Iranian household a computer and give them free Internet access if it would give Iranians access to the Internet not filtered by the mullahs.

Internet users do not seem to be so crazy about rocking the boat. One reason is that they are afraid that countries, in addition to denying access to their sites, is that they might redirect traffic to other sites setup by them. This is done by changing the addresses in the routers of where the website is located. These routers currently get their information from ICANN.

Somebody has to control the list of internet address names. Letting the UN take control of this service is an invitation to disaster. If these countries are so concerned about being shut out, they could just build their own Internet. Even if the US can shut them out, it would have no effect on the Internet within their country. If your domestic Internet sucks, well who is to blame there?

Finally, there is one other area where the US has ultimate control over an area of International interest and has the possibility to fully cripple the operation of the UN. That is in the role as the issuer of Visas to the US. That includes all the diplomats and world leaders going to the UN. It was suggested that the New President of Iran should be denied a visa as some suspect him of being involved in the Embassy hostage crisis of the 70’s. In the end, President Ahmadinejad did get a visa and was permitted to attend meeting at the UN. But how humiliating it must have been to ask the United States for permission to go to the meetings. Even Castro manages to obtain a visa to attend UN functions. But come on. None of this is about the way the US is acting, it is all about the fact that they could if they wanted too, and that is what is the issue. But for some reason, there is no concerted effort to wrest Visa control from the US. That might change the next time President Ahmadinejad asks for a visa.

Keep your U.N. off my Internet. – Opinion Journal
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) – UN
Workshop on Internet Governance - ITU (Chairman’s Report, PDF Document)


Galileo European Satellite Navigation System - EU
Galileo positioning system - Wikipedia

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