ICANN – Battle for the Internet – Update 2

I’ve been following the ICANN issue pretty closely but there’s not too much to say until the scheduled UN meeting next month. (Check out previous posting on this blog “Will the Internet Remain Truly Global“and Battle for the Internet – Update 1.)

But, I did come across a great article by Kenneth Cukier of the Economist in the November/December 2003 Foreign Affairs that is worth reading for a thorough overview of what is going happening regarding the UN and ICANN.

Here is a great excerpt of a historical comparison to the Cold War, US maneuverings and how the current US system, while should be continued for now, isn’t sustainable in the long term:

[The] very countries that most restrict the Internet within their borders are the ones calling loudest for greater control. As other countries sharpen their diplomatic knives for the final round of the summit in Tunis in November, the dispute is echoing an earlier battle at Unesco in the 1980s over the so-called New World Information and Communication Order, which led the United States and the United Kingdom to pull out of the organization. Then, it was the Soviet Union,its satellites, and the developing world that called for controlling media activities and funding the development of media resources in developing countries; today, some of those same nations seek power over the Internet, as well as financial aid to overcome the digital divide. (Emphais mine)

Washington’s new position shrewdly mixes a few carrots in along with the big stick. It formally acknowledges that countries have “sovereignty concerns” about their national two-letter address domains — a mealy-mouthed nod toward granting countries control over them, which is only appropriate. Although this will invite problems, such as with Taiwan’s “.tw,” these can be sidestepped — just as the allocation of telephone “country codes” to territories does not confer diplomatic recognition, neither does the allocation of country domains need to. Washington also supports the continued discussion of broader Internet governance issues in multiple forums, which could restrain the creation of a cumbersome and monolithic Global Internet Policy Council (which was among the UN working group’s proposals). It may also keep politicians from trespassing on ICANN’s more purely technical areas, which could harm the network.

Nevertheless, although the new U.S. position may be the least bad alternative in the short term, it will almost certainly be unsustainable over the longer term. For the moment, there is little other governments can do to rebel. Unless they feel their concerns are being addressed, however, they are likely to try to set up a parallel naming and addressing system to compete with ICANN-sanctioned domains. Technology abhors homogeneity; differing technical standards are the norm rather than the exception. The ongoing scuffle over the creation of Galileo, Europe’s challenge to Washington’s Global Positioning System, is one example; the battle over third-generation mobile-phone standards is another. The danger, however, is that two different addressing systems on the Internet may not interoperate perfectly. If it wants to preserve and extend the benefits the Internet currently brings, Washington will have to come up with some way of sharing control with other countries without jeopardizing the network’s stability or discouraging free speech and technical innovation.

Ultimately, what is playing out is a clash of perspectives. The U.S. government saw the creation of ICANN as the voluntary relinquishing of a critical source of power in the digital age; others saw it as a clever way for Washington to maintain its hegemony by placing Internet governance in the U.S. private sector. Foreign critics think a shift to multilateral intergovernmental control would mark a step toward enlightened global democracy; Washington thinks it would constitute a step back in time, toward state-regulated telecommunications. Whether and how these perspectives are bridged will determine the future of a global resource that nearly all of us have come to take for granted.

Read the whole thing (free for limited length of time) at the Foreign Affairs web site.

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Daniel writes on foresight and explores new economic systems. He has over 15 years of experience in technology & digital marketing and has worked with clients in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Daniel is currently part of the University of Houston's Foresight Program.

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