US CAN And Others CAN’T: The Story of ICANN

THE recently concluded World Information Summit in Tunisia last month was supposed to address the yawning digital divide: both between nations and within nations. Instead, most of the public focus was in who would control the Internet, not only the information highway of today but also a major channel for global commerce. Though the results from the summit was not decisive, the issues somehow getting pushed under the rug for the time being, it is increasingly clear that an Internet controlled by the US as it is today is not acceptable to the rest of the world.

To understand who controls Internet, we must see how it functions. To the uninitiated, it is the final frontier with no controls by anybody and with complete freedom from all national authorities. In reality, the final arbiter of the Internet is the US Department of Commerce who has delegated the day-to-day administration of the net to Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private-sector body that operates it under a contract. When we type in web address, this is dissolved into a physical address of a specific computer on the net by a set of rootservers. The key issue here is just as a telephone number dialled by anyone anywhere in the world will always go to that specific phone, so will the address we type go to a unique computer address.


For all this to work seamlessly, there are four issues that need to be addressed. The first issue is that somebody must decide who will operate the database of generic names ending with suffixes such as “.com,” “.net,” “.info,”, a privilege that yields handsome profits. Also, someone must appoint the operators of two-letter country-code suffixes, such as “.cn,” for China. The second issue is that the numeric address also needs to be regulated so that no two computers have identical addresses. The third issue pertains to root servers, the actual machines that make the domain name system work. When users visit Web sites or send e-mail, big computers known as root servers match the domain names with their corresponding Internet Protocol numbers in a matter of milliseconds. There are 13 root servers in the world, ten of them in the US and one each in Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Tokyo. The fourth and final issue is that, there are technical standards that must be formally established and coordinated to ensure that the Internet system works. This means the message sent over the Internet will be interpreted the same way by all machines and other equipment on the net.


The battle whether the Internet should continue to be controlled exclusively by ICANN, a private body answerable to the US has been joined by a large number of countries. Even the European Union, initially lukewarm to the idea of challenging the US hegemony finally came out for a larger international voice in running of the Internet. For a number of countries, the issue is not what the US has done but what it can potentially do. Technically, the US can delete .ir from the rootserver by which all the sites in Iran ending with .ir would fall off the Internet. The US could impose this at any time if it felt like under the current dispensation and that it has not done so in the past is scant comfort for many countries. The mere threat of such an exercise of power would be a very real threat, particularly in an era where the Internet is also the critical for various economic activities. From freezing Iran’s monies in its banks across the world, which it did in the 1980s to freezing, its Internet “account” is not such a long step as people may imagine. Therefore, countries are challenging the power that the US has today to impose its will on the Internet by virtue of controlling all the domain names.


While controlling the domain names is one obvious way of flexing of the US muscle, there are very many other exercises of power that the US routinely does. The rootservers and domain name registration are money-spinners for private companies who control domain registrations. Obviously, all such domain name registration contracts are with the US companies. The second part is the cost that servers pay to connect to the Internet. If they are far away from existing Internet infrastructure, the costs can be very high. Obviously, this means the poorer countries are affected more adversely than richer countries that are already covered by such infrastructure. The third problem lies with the script that the rootservers understand: all addresses have to be in the roman script for it to be understood by rootservers, making it difficult for the non-English speaking Chinese or Arabic population to access Internet that easily.

Many of these problems are important but not so crucial as the problem with next generation of Internet issues that are coming up. Most of all they pertain to making the network work for everybody in a way that it will not lead to global monopolies. Internet is not the place for proprietary standards but all parties have to cooperate on the issue of open standards so that Internet can never be a place for creating private monopolies. Though the ICANN and other bodies have tended to keep out proprietary standards and software till now, as the system is completely privatised, such systems can pass into the hands of a few companies. They can then impose their solutions on the world and hold everybody to ransom by virtue of their monopoly exercised through ICANN. The other future issue is that the Internet has to expand and expands very quickly. Already the 4 billion addresses originally envisaged for the net is proving insufficient. Any expansion will need all the players in the world to agree. If they do not, the net will fragment to the detriment of everybody. Such an agreement is more difficult if one country tells the rest that it has the right to decide what is best for everybody.

The third and the most important future issue is that the current system of the net, while it has allowed a large degree of freedom to everybody to do what they want on the net, it has also allowed spamming (unwanted flood of emails) and hacking with relative immunity. Today, spamming is a real menace with people arguing that its growth is far greater than real emails and will completely drown out all real emails very soon. While this view may be alarmist, but the menace of spamming is very real on the net today. There is no way we can address the issues of security on the net and spamming etc., without international co-operation. And with the attitude that the US has, “we invented it and therefore we own it”, there is very little likelihood of such a co-operation coming through.


The Tunis summit finally agreed to allow the US to continue its current role of administering the net with an international advisory committee, which will presumably sort out issues with ICANN. While this is a temporary truce at best, the real issues of how to sort out in a global co-operative framework still remain. And in this the US still remains intransigent: it believes in its divine right to rule the internet the same way as it sees its divine right to bomb Iraq to democracy. The same way it believes that Geneva conventions on torture and prisoners apply to all countries who do not have a hot line to god the same way as George Bush has; the US is obviously free of such obligations.

Although, controlling the creation of domain names and locations of root servers are important issues, there are much larger issues at stake here. Should we allow the US and some private corporations to dominate and decide the future of Internet? Or should all the national governments jointly address the problems the Internet is facing today? While the Tunis summit may have won the US a temporary reprieve, there is no way this issue of control of the Internet is going to go away.