23 October 2005

Internet Governance: One American View to the Contrary

On Friday I reported a speech by Commissioner Reding entitled "Opportunities and challenges of the Ubiquitous World and some words on Internet Governance" on the EC perspective on reform of the domain name system. The Commissioner made the not unreasonable point that it is undesirable for the government of one state to determine who can run the top level domain space of other states or, indeed, the generic top level domain.

Mark A. Shiffrin, a lawyer and a former Connecticut state consumer protection commissioner, and Avi Silberschatz, a professor of computer science at Yale, express the contrary view in "Web of the Free", one of today's Op-Ed contributions to the New York Times. Those authors attack the Commissioner's position as "disingenuous" describing it as a "'maneuver' [presumably, manoeuvre] amount[ing] to a call for the United States to depend on the kindness of strangers in maintaining basic infrastructure that underpins our national security and economy." "Moreover" they complained, "it threatens to whittle away the freedom of the Internet with a series of seemingly minor and well-intentioned compromises that begin with something that sounds as reasonable as a 'model of cooperation'."

A does of reality is required here. What we are talking about is not ownership or control of the internet, much less the traffic that is exchanged through its channels, but the allocation of domain name addresses. That has nothing to do with US national security, the US economy or the freedom of American internet subscribers to use the internet as they will.

The article appears to argue that the USA should control the domain name system because the web is a US invention. I don't really see the logic but in any case the assertion is only partially true. While much of the early work was done by DARPA and several Southern California universities (including that of my own alma mater) nearly 40 years ago (see "Origins of the Internet" in the Internet Society History), it was the work of the British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) near Geneva that actually made the worldwide web attractive to business and the general public.

This is a resource for all humanity and not for one state, albeit a powerful one. It would be good if we could carry America with us but, if we can't, it is not beyond the wit or resources of the rest of humankind to devise an alternative domain name system.

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