U.N. Control of the Internet and Open Information
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Have you ever wondered just who runs the Internet? Well, a non-profit organization here in the US is responsible for technical oversight, but lately there's been some loud protests from other countries who want more of a say. The results of a UN tech summit next month in Tunisia could determine whether the Internet remains as open as it is today. And here with more is DAY TO DAY tech contributor Xeni Jardin.
XENI JARDIN reporting:
The biggest myth about the Internet is that's an open, virtual frontier with no boss and no rules. That is the myth. The truth is that someone has to manage all of the technical stuff: the big databases of domain names like npr.org, the Internet protocol numbers that identify each computer on the network. Right now a California-based non-profit called The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers--ICANN--manages all of that. It was established in the 1990s by the Department of Commerce, which has made a point of keeping hands off and planned to cut loose entirely in September 2006. But recently some countries have pressured international bodies like the UN and the European Union to take that power out of the US. The Department of Commerce responded, announcing that it would not let go of ICANN. Many observers say that it's better to keep the US in control than to have the Internet become a plaything of dictatorships around the world.
Mr. KENNETH CUKIER (Journalist): When America holds onto the Internet, this would probably be better than having Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe holding onto the Internet and using it for his own domestic agenda.
JARDIN: That's London-based journalist Kenneth Cukier, author of the feature in November's Foreign Affairs magazine called Who Will Control the Internet? Cukier says it's no accident that some of the world's most oppressive regimes are most eager to gain new power. One proposed solution is letting countries manage their own networks. Could this lead to the Balkanization of the Internet?
Mr. VENI MARKOVSKY (Founder, Bulgarian Internet Society): Coming from the Balkans, certainly this sounds very familiar.
JARDIN: Veni Markovsky is the founder of the Bulgarian Internet Society. He set up one of the country's first Internet service providers and is a member of the ICANN board.
Mr. MARKOVSKY: Many countries have tried in the past to develop their own Internet. It didn't work out. If you want to be part of the world, you have to be part of a global network, not of a national network which is limited within your borders.
JARDIN: Markovsky will attend the UN summit about these issues in November, but he says he's not terribly worried about nations breaking off domestic Internets.
Mr. MARKOVSKY: And even if they do, their citizens will not use it because they are not interested only in content which originates in the country. They're interested in global culture, which will be in global music--you know, in getting outside of the borders of the country. After all, that's one of the big advantages of the Internet right now.
JARDIN: There's plenty of reason to believe that ICANN and the current system will endure. It's survived despite being a target of criticism since its inception. Esther Dyson served as chairman of ICANN from 1998 to 2000.
Ms. ESTHER DYSON (Former Chairperson, ICANN): The fact that people consider ICANN illegitimate actually makes everything safe because ICANN can't do very much. The moment you create something that can do a lot, you have a real danger of concentration of arbitrary power. I think the notion of a world government or even of a global government just for the Internet is pretty scary.
JARDIN: Furthermore, Dyson says a governing board is unnecessary for regimes that want to limit access. Filtering software has already been used by governments including Iran, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and other countries to block controversial Web sites.
Ms. DYSON: It's happening anyway. You don't need to control ICANN. You can control people in China and tell them it's illegal to search certain sites on Google when you can block those sites. You don't need ICANN to do that. If you're North Korea, you can really stop a lot of stuff going on.
JARDIN: They're not the only governments getting involved in the technical details of the Internet. The US Department of Commerce nixed plans for a dot-XXX domain for adult Web sites this year after protests from social conservatives. But the Commerce Department says its overall goal is to keep all governments hands off the Internet's evolution and to preserve free market development, and that is the stand US representatives are expected to take at the World Summit on the Information Society next month in Tunisia. Commerce Department spokesperson David Gross, addressing the issue of Internet governance, recently declared, `This is not a negotiation.'
Reporting for NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.