EU says internet could fall apart
· Developing countries demand share of control · US says urge to censor underlies calls for reform
Richard Wray Wednesday October 12, 2005 The Guardian
A battle has erupted over who governs the internet, with America demanding to maintain a key role in the network it helped create and other countries demanding more control. The European commission is warning that if a deal cannot be reached at a meeting in Tunisia next month the internet will split apart.
At issue is the role of the US government in overseeing the internet's address structure, called the domain name system (DNS), which enables communication between the world's computers. It is managed by the California-based, not-for-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) under contract to the US department of commerce.
A meeting of officials in Geneva last month was meant to formulate a way of sharing internet governance which politicians could unveil at the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis on November 16-18. A European Union plan that goes a long way to meeting the demands of developing countries to make the governance more open collapsed in the face of US opposition.
Viviane Reding, European IT commissioner, says that if a multilateral approach cannot be agreed, countries such as China, Russia, Brazil and some Arab states could start operating their own versions of the internet and the ubiquity that has made it such a success will disappear.
"We have to have a platform where leaders of the world can express their thoughts about the internet," she said. "If they have the impression that the internet is dominated by one nation and it does not belong to all the nations then the result could be that the internet falls apart."
The US argues that many of the states demanding a more open internet are no fans of freedom of expression.
Michael Gallagher, President Bush's internet adviser and head of the national telecommunications and information administration, believes they are seizing on the only "central" part of the system in an effort to exert control. "They are looking for a handle, thinking that the DNS is the meaning of life. But the meaning of life lies within their own borders and the policies that they create there."
The US government, which funded the development of the internet in the 60s, said in June it intended to retain its role overseeing Icann, reneging on a pledge made during Bill Clinton's presidency. Since Icann was created, the US commerce department has not once interfered with its decisions.
David Gross, who headed the US delegation at the Geneva talks, said untested models of internet governance could disrupt the 250,000-plus networks, all using the same technical standards (TCP/IP), which allows over a billion people to get online for 27bn daily user sessions.
"The internet has been a remarkably reliable and stable network of networks and it has grown at a rate unprecedented in human history," he said. "What we are looking for is a continued evolution of the internet that is technically driven. We do not think the creation of new or use of existing multilateral institutions in the governance of essentially technical institutions is a way to promote technological change."
According to Emily Taylor, director of legal and policy issues at Nominet, which oversees the address categories such as .co or .org - root zone files known as top-level domain names - bearing Britain's .uk suffix, the spat in Geneva was "all about the root - the valuable dot at the end of domain names".
At present Icann decides what new top-level domain names to create and who should run the existing domains, in consultation with a panel called the Governmental Advisory Committee. In practice the GAC exerts more pressure on Icann than the US department of commerce ever has. It was at the GAC's urging that a recent request to create more top-level domain names was reviewed. The commerce department does have the power to clear Icann's decisions.
Icann's president, Paul Twomey, shares many of the US government concerns. He is adamant that his organisation should be allowed to evolve rather than be brushed aside in favour of some untried model of state-led internet governance.
"We are firmly committed to a multi-stakeholder approach," he said. "We expect to evolve, we expect to keep changing. We are concerned about stability [of the internet] and we think it's best to evolve existing institutions. Our present corporate structure is a matter of history, not of any particular design."
But designing new structures is exactly what the international community seems intent on doing. At one end of the spectrum are Iran, Pakistan and other so-called control-oriented states that want to create a new governing council for the web to which Icann would be accountable. The remit of this council seems broad enough to include questions of content, a worry for advocates of free speech on the web.
Two week's ago the EU proposed its own structure, which consists of what it calls a "cooperation model" to deal with Icann and a forum which would allow governments, interested organisations and industry to discuss internet issues and swap best practice.
"What we are talking about is a governance structure that is extremely lightweight, where the government oversight of internet functions is limited just to the list of essential tasks," said one EU negotiator.
While the forum "does not decide anything, it is a place where people can come to a view and generally participate in thinking about the internet and the way it is governed".
The EU plan was applauded by states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, leading the former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt to express misgivings on his weblog: "It seems as if the European position has been hijacked by officials that have been driven by interests that should not be ours.
"We really can't have a Europe that is applauded by China and Iran and Saudi Arabia on the future governance of the internet. Even those critical of the United States must see where such a position risks taking us."
But EU negotiators are adamant that they reject calls for state control of the content of the internet. "None of this is about content and that is a big difference between the EU position and the position of China and Brazil," the negotiator said. "The proposals that came from Brazil and the others to amend our own proposal were not acceptable, they were trying to drag us closer to their position. We are very alive to that."
Calls from Argentina for a continuing debate while Icann is restructured are believed to have garnered support from countries such as Canada which do not like the perceived power that the US has over the internet but are wary of opening up the web to overall state control.
Just before the meeting in Tunis, there will be a three-day gathering of bureaucrats to try to thrash out a deal on internet governance. Getting the parties - especially the US - to agree to anything looks like a near impossible task but Mrs Reding believes it is crucial to find common ground or see the global communication network disintegrate.
The firm US stand makes that prospect of an end to ubiquity seem imminent. Although any decision from the Tunis summit would have no legal standing, the current deal between Icann and the US government is due to come to an end in September next year, by which time the organisation is supposed to be made independent under the deal made during the Clinton presidency.
Mr Gallagher said that after the Tunis meeting there will be further discussion with governments and the private sector about the future of the organisation. "But we are not going to bureaucratise, politicise and retard the management of the DNS. Period," he said. "That will not happen. We will not agree to it in November and we will not do it in September 2006."
Domain Name System
The DNS is the address book of the internet, matching numeric IP addresses to alphabetic addresses such as www.amazon.co.uk, which people find easier to remember. But instead of one central list of everyone's internet address, which would be massive, it splits addresses into their constituent parts - called domains - and gives each machine in the network enough information to know where to locate the next machine down the line. This is known as a distributed database.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is a not-for-profit organisation that manages the DNS. It decides who gets to operate the most basic domains, the top-level domains such as .com and .org as well as all the world's country codes. It is responsible for allocating space on the internet. It was set up in California under contract to the department of commerce and as such it is subject to California state law and any disagreements have to be taken up with that state's courts.
TCP and IP
Internet Protocol (IP) is the technology that allows data to cross networks, using a destination address (IP address) to make sure it reaches the right place. Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), meanwhile, ensures the correct delivery of that data or its re-transmission if it gets lost. Together they are the tarmac of the information superhighway.
Root zone file
Although the DNS is a distributed database it needs a starting point, a list of where to go for the first part of an internet address and start a search for a particular machine. This list of where to start is called the root zone file. It is a list of 248 country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) - such as .uk and .fr - as well as 14 generic top-level domains (gTLDs), which are subject-based such as .com and .net and .org. The list, held on 13 machines across the world, says who runs these domains and where to find them.