Arik Hesseldahl

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What Last Week’s Anti-U.S. Shift in Internet Governance Means to You

milton-muellerLast week a group of the Internet’s governing organizations announced they were effectively turning their backs on the United States. The heads of ICANN, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the World Wide Web Consortium and the Internet Society, backed by the heads of the regional registrars for global top-level domains, issued a statement calling for the “acceleration of the globalization” of the functions carried out by ICANN and IANA.

In the arcane world of Internet administration and governance, this was seen as something of an important shift away from the U.S.-centric bent the Internet has had since its inception, and in time it may be seen as a turning point toward a more global governing framework. But there’s no question the transition is going to be sticky.

So what is all this about and why should you care about it? That was my first question for Milton Mueller, a professor of Information Studies at Syracuse University who follows this closely. He has written a book on the subject, and also writes the Internet Governance Project Blog.

AllThingsD: Milton, I have to admit, I get a little confused when I get down into the trenches with Internet governance. Last week’s statement by the governing organizations to shift away from the U.S. has been discussed as something of a earthquake. Why is that?

Mueller: It’s really more of a tremor that could eventually become an earthquake. The Internet is a new global infrastructure that evolved these global governing bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force and the regional Internet registries, and ICANN because we want the Internet to be global. But most of our governing institutions are based on nation states which are territorially exclusive. There has always been this interesting contradiction between having a global Internet and having governance of it. So we originally solved that by allowing it to be global and based on the private sector. But then the U.S. said, hang on, we’re going to be in control of this private corporation through the use of a contract. That control has set up some natural rivalries that have now been exacerbated by the revelations about the National Security Agency. So basically you have a 15-year struggle over the role of nation states in the governance of the Internet. And if we can actually detach nation states from ICANN, then we have moved in what I think is the right direction, which is to have self-governance by civil society and the private sector. On the other hand, if we keep militarizing and nationalizing the Internet we’ll end up with something like the more restrictive and controlled telephone networks of the 1970s.

It’s interesting that you mention militarization and nationalization because we’ve had so many things taking place between and within nations on the Internet. We’ve had the Arab Spring, and Cyber War and now the NSA revelations. It’s such an extra-national force that puts it in a different legal place?

Right. People can react to the NSA thing in two ways. They can globalize the space and the rules, or they can renationalize things. They can require that their data remain within their territory and impose restrictions over all kinds of information in order to re-impose some sovereignty on the space. You hear Brazil talking about that and Europe talking about that — even some privacy advocates talking about it.

So why is it that the U.S. Department of Commerce is so closely tied to the governance of the Internet in the first place?

It was a legacy of the evolution. The original Internet coordination took placed under a federal contract through the National Science Foundation. It was a very cheap contract, like a million dollars to run the Root Domain Name System. And then in the mid-1990s the number of domain names was growing so fast it became clear it was exploding and the NSF allowed the company that held the contract to start charging in order to recover its costs. And once they started charging, they started bringing in hundreds of millions. Suddenly everyone said this is an industry, and that it shouldn’t be run by a government agency. They started getting all these questions about governing an industry. That’s where you come to the creation of ICANN, which is a private corporation, but the Commerce Department inherited the NSF contract and asserted control of the Root DNS.

So how does the Internet’s governing structure begin to evolve from here?

That’s the interesting question. ICANN and these Internet registries are going to be strong players because they have the operational capabilities to administer them. But the question is going to be who are they accountable to and what are the oversight mechanisms? How do we yank their chain when they do something wrong? I think that this conference in Rio may be where we move to some new arrangements.

What exactly is being proposed by the Brazilians, who have sought to take some kind of leadership on this? Is there some of blueprint waiting in the wings?

They are proposing some kind of summit. … There are some ideas kicking around. We at the Internet Governance Project have provided a blueprint pushing the Commerce Department to let go. And when I spoke to people who were at the meeting in Montevideo, they were pushing for some kind of multi-stakeholder arrangement in which anyone who might have want to have an open complaint session about ICANN and it would be expected to respond. Those ideas have been pretty vague. We are interested not in so-called political oversight where governments can intervene whenever they see something they don’t like. We think that’s dangerous. We want something more like rules akin to International Law that define what ICANN can and can’t do, some kind of basic ground rules, and then a judiciary system that comes into play when those rules are violated.

So then if I’m an Internet company, say Google, or Facebook or a startup, what’s the most important thing I need to be paying attention to as it evolves?

It’s subtle and nuanced and has the potential for death from a thousand cuts, but it’s about looking for ways that entry and service provision on the Internet become more territorial and more restrictive.

Is that the trend where it seems to be going? We’ve had a pretty free-flowing framework for a couple of decades. Could we end up with a system where different standards apply in different countries?

Definitely. I think this trend toward territorialization or fragmentation could continue. I think things could be fundamentally interconnected in some way, but we could end up with a lot of these national gateways like the one the Chinese run that if a national government doesn’t approve the content, it simply doesn’t get it.

A lot like Twitter in China, for example.


Then we end up with a more fractured Internet generally. Could it get so bad that we lose basic functionality for things like email?

Probably not that bad. But again, when some of the European people reacting against the NSA talk about privacy they may in fact create certain barriers to the use of certain email systems by people in their territory, which I think would be hard to implement.

As things shape up, what’s the best and worst case?

The best case is that everyone comes to their senses and realizes that the governance of the Internet has to be decentralized and global and as minimal as possible. So we have this summit and the U.S. agrees to let it go and certain new multi-stakeholder agreements emerge. The worst scenario is that the U.S. withdrawal from oversight responsibility emboldens more authoritarian governments like China and even democracies that have what they see as strong public interests for intervening in the Internet, they set up a top-heavy form of oversight that restricts what businesses can do and leads to the kind of cumbersome debate that we’ve had over things like the ICANN’s new program for top-level domains.

What’s the next step — or is that clear yet?

There’s two things. First, the summit that Brazil has proposed for Rio: Something is going to happen. But I also think that the U.S. has to react creatively and not just in total denial of this new trend. They either have to recognize this summit and agree to participate in it, or give some alternative mechanism for moving forward. They can’t pretend it didn’t happen and sit with their hands over their ears going la-la-la.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work