Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Future of the Internet

I write a monthly article for a local political journal and while exploring the options for this month’s piece I stumbled across a small story (that I can’t find now!) that said that the Obama administration was pressuring a group called ICANN, who controls Internet domain names to hand control of the whole domain name process over to the United Nations. The story was instantly alarming.

I began to turn the arguments that would be inherent in such a situation over in my head. Which would be preferable? Would it be better to have governments, with their own agendas and issues with censorship and free speech, controlling domain names? Or would it be better to have a private company (although ICANN is a non-profit) holding the reins?

I have to say that as encroachment on religious rights becomes the norm (Catholic colleges can’t opt out of providing abortion coverage? And there’s the ever present threat the stating Christian beliefs may soon be classified as “hate speech…”) I am exceedingly uncomfortable with the idea of any government controlling the Internet in this way. So I set out to learn what ICANN does and what is really happening at the moment.

When I first began my search I found a bunch of old conspiracy theory sites. Then I found a Time article and from there was able to launch a much more effective search and find answers to my questions. First off, in layman terms, what does ICANN do? Here’s the answer (I tried to simplify it!):

One of ICANN’s jobs is to ensure that the internet has stable and secure identifiers. They coordinate the domain names system (DNS) and numeric addresses that are used to reach computers who are online. These DNS names help users find what they’re looking for online. Each computer has an IP address, but these IP addresses are long strings of numbers. A DNS allows familiar letters to be used instead of numbers and that is what a domain name is. So instead of typing in 9 numbers, you type in to get to my blog.

Five years ago the US government renewed ICANN’s contract to continue with this job for another five years. This fall, the contract is up and there are many people who would like to see this job turned over to the UN. Here’s an important quote from the article:
"Last month the U.S. circulated a proposal that would have essentially given world governments a veto over any new proposed TLD “for any reason.” That proposal was ultimately softened under public pressure, but the Obama Administration continues to place pressure on ICANN to give governments more say over its policy decisions. If it's too principled about free expression, the logic goes, ICANN and the U.S. may face overwhelming pressure to cede authority to the UN."
One of the reasons foreign powers are pressuring the turnover is because they feel that the US could use the US based company to unfairly control the internet. An example of one of these worries in action is shown in an article in the Washington Post in this way: Say the US decides Syria is misbehaving and decides to use ICANN to retaliate. They could, theoretically, use Syria’s country code domain (which you’d see at the end of Syrian websites) to direct people to freedom of expression sites.

At this point the commerce department worries that a large number of foreign countries are going to lobby the U.N. to take control of the system. And the International Telecommunications Union, a 145- year old agency of nearly 200 nations and Territories, is eager to take over.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the entire situation is the anti-ICANN quotes that I found attached to many articles. There is certainly a movement demanding that ICANN step aside so that other nations can decide through “consensus” what is appropriate and what is not. This makes me very uncomfortable. This “democratic” process could easily be used to control the speech of dissenters across the political spectrum. I find that to be incredibly troubling.

And that is one of the main reasons I hope that ICANN does end up successfully renewing their contract this September. I’d rather see a “too principled” company allowing free expression online, regardless of what opinion is being voiced, than have the countries of the world deciding by consensus which voices shouldn’t be heard.


  1. The idea of censoring (or the government controlling) the internet bothers me too. Especially considering it would put us in the same category as countries like Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. Not exactly shining examples of human rights!

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