But they’ll carry out that work in the midst of a turf fight among the United States, other governments and free-speech advocates over who should have control of the domain process.
For now, it’s ICANN, a California nonprofit the Clinton administration helped create in the early days of the Internet. But President Barack Obama’s Commerce Department has suggested that countries around the world retain veto power over new domain names. And countries such as China and Libya have suggested that the United Nations take control of the process.
And that has some free-speech proponents alarmed. (I am one of them!)
“Domain names and numbers are one of the few chokeholds of free speech,” said Susan Crawford, a former special assistant to the Obama administration on science, technology and innovation policy. “By having a government-led institution, it will immediately insert lowest-common-denominator speech demands into the decision-making process.”
Recent events have heightened concerns about government control. (Government has too many controls as it is! Big government = Bad government.)
Governments in Egypt and Libya blacked out parts of the Internet during recent protests. Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s seizure of more than 100 domain names of websites accused of copyright infringement has sparked cries of First Amendment violations here at home.
The reason that control of the Internet’s addressing and numbering system is important is that, in the technical workings of cyberspace, you have to have a name and number to exist.
The U.S. government is “ganging up with other governments,” charged Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University who has been involved in ICANN. “The thing that’s concerning is that if ICANN makes some kind of deal, who will be cut out of the process? Will ICANN become a remote, bargaining game between this tiny board and a few powerful governments?”
The irony is that the Internet was developed as part of a Department of Defense project some 40 years ago. In 1998, after Web browsers popularized the new medium, the Clinton administration helped set up. Now, the governance of cyberspace is entering a new age.
“ICANN is embarking on the biggest change in its lifetime,” said Kim Davies, who is responsible for domain names at ICANN. “Both ICANN and governments are grappling with what role they play.”
Some lawmakers want to make sure the decisions don’t fall into the wrong hands.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) spoke to those fears in January when she proposed a House resolution to fight any effort to push control of the Internet to the U.N. “It has become increasingly clear that international governmental organizations, such as the United Nations, have aspirations to become the epicenter of Internet governance,” she said in a statement. “And I’m going to do everything I can to make sure this never happens.”
But others argue that ICANN’s model is out of step with the Internet’s growth and importance. With an estimated 2 billion people online, and more joining every day, running the Internet should be in the hands of an international, democratic body, they say. (For God’s sake–that is NOT the U.N.!)