Internet(s) at crossroads

The current Internet, quintessential American contribution to the world, has become target, and possibly casualty, of those who challenge "hegemony," and support "multi-polarity," friends and foes of the U.S. alike.

Today, the Internet is ruled by Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). According to Webopedia, ICANN is a
nonprofit organization that has assumed the responsibility for IP address space allocation, protocol parameter assignment, domain name system management and root server system management functions previously performed under U.S. Government contract.
ICANN was created by the late Jon Postel in the fall of 1998 in response to a policy statement issued by the US Department of Commerce. This statement called for the formation of a private sector not-for-profit Internet stakeholder to administer policy for the Internet name and address system.
Thus far ICANN has taken various measures to oversee the domain-name registration system's transition from government hands to private hands and to coordinate its decentralization and the integration into a global community.
ICANN's diverse board consists of nineteen Directors, nine At-Large Directors, who serve one-year terms and will be succeeded by At-Large Directors elected by an at-large membership organization. None of the present interim directors may sit on the board once the permanent members are selected.

Gathered for the first time at the UN's World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 in Geneva, officials of several countries are pushing for an alternative to the current system of Internet governance--the management of the names, numbers, root servers, and standards. Brazil and South Africa are critical of the current system, China calls for a new international treaty organization. France too wants an intergovernmental approach. Things went as far as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe's calling the existing system of Internet governance a form of neocolonialism.

On June 2005, the efforts of several nations and organizations (e.g. U.N., E.U.), asking for a place at the Internet management table, led to a U.N. report calling not only for the US to give up control, but asking the United Nations to set broader Internet policy, including multi-lingualization of the Web and the power to tax domains to pay for universal access.

The reaction of the US government was, what Kenneth Neil Cukier calls it in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, a Monroe Doctrine for our times: "U.S. Principles on the Internet’s Domain Name and Addressing System."

First, there are domain names, such as or Controlling the database of generic names ending with suffixes such as ".com," ".net," etc., as well as the designation of operators for two-letter country-code suffixes (such as ".uk," Great Britain), touch on the commercial, and respectively, political, aspects of domain names. When the U.S. Government asked ICANN to initiate the procedures leading to a new domain name for pornography Web sites, a new domain name, ".xxx," was proposed. However, following complaints from American Christian groups, the U.S. Department of Commerce removed its support for such a domain name. Moreover, when Taiwan was assigned the ".tw" suffix, under the current ICANN arrangement, China could not escalate its frustration with the event to a diplomatic scandal.

Second, there is the Internet Protocol addresses, 32-bit numeric address written as four numbers separated by period, that every Internet resource needs to work on the Internet. A crisis is already looming in this area. For historical reasons dating back in the late '70s the system is set up to accommodate about 4 billion potential IP addresses. Now, that everything needs to be on the Internet, the current IP address system needs to be updated before running out of unique IP's.

Third are what are called root servers. According to Webopedia, this is a
system of 13 file servers that are distributed around the globe and contain authoritative databases that form a master list of all top-level domain names (TLDs). There is one central, or "A", server that replicates changes to the other servers on a daily basis. Different organizations maintain the servers on the root server system.

In other words, the root servers are a control mechanism needed to make the domain name system work. For another historical reason, worldwide, there are only 13 root servers. To make matters even more delicate in a diverging world, ten of the root servers are operated from the U.S., and the rest from Holland, Sweden, and Japan.

Finally, there are technical standards that must be formalized and coordinated to ensure Internet interoperability. Standards are the engine propelling the Internet evolution.

All four Internet governance facets deal both with the politics and economics of the Internet. However, it is the fourth facet that has the greatest economical implications. For example, different standards may stop the growth of the major plumbers of the Internet, it so happens that most of them are US-based companies, while opening (smaller) worlds of opportunity to local players in, say, France, China, India, and Russia. This is not a new evolution, see the different standards in (wireless) telephony, space-based positioning systems, power grids, or even video-coding systems. The novelty here, if countries proceed with a non-US alternative to ICANN, may be in doing away with a system whose value consists of the ability one has to access data and applications from any Internet-connected device, regardless of the place where data, and applications, originate.

By mid-November 2005, WSIS will have worked on:
[...] a process of monitoring and evaluation of the progress of feasible actions laid out in the Geneva Plan and a concrete set of deliverables that must be achieved by the time the Summit meets again in Tunis in November 2005. Efforts are now being made to put the Plan of Action into motion and working groups are being set up to find solutions and reach agreements in the fields of Internet governance and financing mechanisms. These working groups will provide inputs to the second phase of WSIS in Tunis. Also, measures will be taken to bridge the digital divide and hasten the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals with the help of ICTs.

These being the facts, future scenarios about the internet(s) evolution are a necessity at places like the U.S. Government, Cisco, Juniper, Google, Yahoo, Oracle, Legend, Wipro, SAP, and so on. In addition, the U.S. Government should, and will, see what bargaining power it has left after March 2003. Even though the recent approval at UNESCO of the "Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions" doesn't give the full measure of the leverage the US Government still has in matters dealing with the Internet, it gives one no assurance for the long-term fate of the Internet.

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