It's a myth that no one controls the internet. Until recently, it was American citizens; now governments are getting in on the actby Kenneth Neil Cukier / November 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
In the four years since it was founded, the board of directors of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ICANN-the “UN of Cyberspace”-has held its meetings in the organisation’s hometown, a backwater of Los Angeles. It was there, for over two decades, that the internet’s underlying operations were co-ordinated by a single computer science professor, Jon Postel, funded by the Pentagon. He managed the addressing system and routing numbers that enable the internet to work. He was the dictator of the dot.
ICANN, backed by the US government, took over the role when Postel died in 1998. The location of the board meeting served as a reminder that, no matter how global the internet became, its power base remained in the US. This year, however, the policy-makers and business executives that comprise ICANN will go to Shanghai, China, for the end of October board meeting. It marks a subtle, but symbolic, shift in power.
Although the myth persists that no one controls the internet, it is not really true. Any network system, be it a telephone, railroad, canal or cyberspace, requires a certain degree of central co-ordination. For the net, that job goes to ICANN, which sets policies over monikers like “.com” and has power to mint new addresses, acting as a kind of central bank for the internet.
Where in an earlier era, a global asset like the names and addresses of the internet-the lifeblood of the digital world-would be regulated by inter-governmental treaty, ICANN represents a departure. It is a California-based non-profit organisation that includes a toothless advisory committee of government representatives.
That is a big contrast to the telephone system, for instance, which is run by a UN agency full of diplomats. The International Telecommunications Union sets international standards like Britain’s calling code of 44. But the internet, made up of private networks rather than nationally-licensed operators, lacks that sort of formal political control. Now many governments around the globe are considering whether the internet has become too important to leave to the control of a small, relatively unaccountable group of US lawyers.
It will fall upon ICANN, for example, to decide who will operate registries for non-Roman alphabet internet addresses that will work alongside the current dot-com system, so that languages like Chinese can be used for web pages and e-mails. To bring online the majority of the world that doesn’t use Roman…