U.N. World Summit on Information Age A look at the debate of who controls the Internet, as is being discussed at phase two of The World Summit on the Information Society.
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U.N. World Summit on Information Age

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U.N. World Summit on Information Age

U.N. World Summit on Information Age

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here at NPR News today. Iraq's government is launching an investigation into the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, this time at the hands of Iraqi guards. The prime minister says more than 170 malnourished Iraqi detainees were found at an interior ministry detention center; some may have been tortured.

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Right now the World Wide Web is facing a global tug-of-war. A heated battle is expected at the World Summit on the Information Society that convenes this week in Tunisia. At issue: Who should control the Internet? Right now that control lies in the hands of the United States. Other countries are calling for a bigger say, and the European Union is pushing for a UN role in Internet governance. If you have a question about this, give us a call. Who do you think should govern the Internet? Call us at (800) 989-8255, or send us an e-mail to totn@npr.org.

Joining us now to explain the complexities of the debate over Internet management is Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School and columnist for Wired magazine.

Thanks so much for being with us, Professor.

Professor LAWRENCE LESSIG (Stanford Law School): Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Let's talk, first of all, about what it means to control the Internet. What are we talking about when we say that? Are we talking about what gets on and what doesn't?

Prof. LESSIG: No, actually, the control that's at stake here may ultimately prove to be really unimportant. But the particular issue that's at stake is who controls the domain names. So if you have Stanford.edu, that's a domain name that's issued and controlled through a system set up by a company called ICANN, I-C-A-N-N, which was established in 1998 by the contract with the Commerce Department to basically make sure that there's only one Stanford.edu, there's only one IBM.com and so forth. And they've been the organization that's been running the domain name system since that time, also handing out what's called IP addresses at the same time, or assigning owners to IP addresses. And the issue that's going on right now is whether that company should essentially have that control over this important naming structure, which many people think in the long run won't be very important at all.

NEARY: Hmm. But let's talk a little bit more about that, though. That company has a relationship with the US Commerce Department. Correct? What's the relationship? And in that relationship, does that mean the US government then controls the Internet?

Prof. LESSIG: Well, there's a technical and then there's a practical dimension to that. So the technical answer to the question is ICANN has a contract with the Commerce Department to administer a certain portion of the domain names, and they administer it subject to the agreement they have with the Commerce Department.

But historically, the United States government has played a very active role in making sure that the kind of management that the domain name system had was consistent with certain values the United States government thought important. So there was a very famous incident where one of the real heroes in the history of the Internet, a man named Jon Postel, who died just about the time ICANN was formed, tried to exercise some control over the way domain names would be executed. And the federal government basically threatened that unless he fell back into line and let ICANN do its work, they would withdraw any support to his university and to him personally. So the United States government has not been a passive player in this, but they've also not been a kind of ongoing manager in command and control over what happens. They've tried to get this private company to run it in ways that makes people at least satisfied.

NEARY: But why are some countries unhappy with the status quo? What do they want?

Prof. LESSIG: Well, I think the real thing to recognize here is a lot of countries are just upset with the United States, and this is a way to express that frustration. So I wouldn't actually think that if it weren't for the other things going on in the world, any of these countries would've taken this opportunity to attack the structure of ICANN.

I personally have been a critic of ICANN, but I think right now it would be a mistake to displace them. There've been many policy decisions they've made that I think are a mistake, but I think there's a real fear that an instability from that shift would be quite damaging. But countries like Iran and China and many European countries believe that the process that ICANN has produced for making their policy decisions has not been sufficiently attentive to government interest and they'd, therefore, like to see a much stronger role from governments in controlling how the organization hands out what they believe to be this extremely important resource that, again, which I think many people think might turn out to be not so important at all.

NEARY: So is this something that we need to be caring about, or why should we care about this in general?

Prof. LESSIG: Well, the issue of Internet governance in general is something we should be deeply concerned about, because there are many countries--and China is the leader in this with respect to censorship of free speech, and the United States is the leader in this with respect to regulation of intellectual property, but there are many governments that are attempting to exercise very strong influence over the Internet and the way the Internet functions. That influence is, in fact, best exercised not by controlling domain names, but just by regulating how the Internet service providers within their countries provide access to the Internet. But the nature of the Internet as a place that encourages free exchange of ideas and free speech is continually threatened by governments who don't share those values. So I think that's something we need to be fundamentally concerned about.

And ICANN could potentially play a role for the good or role for the bad in that ultimate question. And I think that they have matured into an organization that's trying to keep a very narrow footprint on what the ultimate policy decisions are that control the Internet. But potentially if ICANN's displaced by another organization, a government structural organization, you could begin to see that organization trying to become another regulator of behavior on the Internet. And...

NEARY: Well, the European Union is pushing for a UN role in Internet governance. Is that a good idea? What are the problems with that idea?

Prof. LESSIG: Well, you know, I find it's hard in principle to oppose the idea of a UN role. I think the resistance I feel about it--and others, too--is just the practical reality of what that would mean. And the concern is that whereas ICANN has now committed itself to a relatively narrow policy role, where what it thinks its job is is just to make sure that the domain name system functions smoothly and efficiently and competitively. The concern is that if the UN became more of a participant in this, they would want to use this as an opportunity to exercise lots of control over how behavior happened in the Internet. Now I think, you know, in principle, we ought to be open to the idea of lots of governments participating in deciding what the Internet should be. So from that theoretical perspective, it sounds fine. It's the practical concern of what would actually happen if such an agency got created that I think makes lots of people very afraid.

NEARY: We're talking about who should control the Internet. My guest is Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School and a columnist for Wired magazine. Give us a call if you'd like to join the discussion. The number is 1 (800) 989-8255.

And let's take a call now from Brian, and he's in Columbus, Ohio. Go ahead, Brian.

BRIAN (Caller): Hey. I just need to know what is a specific example of how this abused, or how does domain names matter? If the information can be put up there under a different Web page, the information's still out there. What's the deal with the name, the address?

Prof. LESSIG: I think it's a great question. You know, about five years ago, if you needed to find an address on the Internet or go to a place on the Internet, you tried to guess. You know, if was IBM, you would type in IBM.com. Today, I think most people, when they're trying to find a place on the Internet, just go to Google or Yahoo! and search and then take the first hit because that's likely to be the thing you're looking for.

So when people were worried about domain names, what they were worried about is the person who controlled what IBM.com referred to would exercise really strong power over how you got access to information on the Internet. And so long as there's not powerful search engines out there as a backup, that organization does exercise significant power. But I think that what we're seeing is as the Internet matures, the actual power that the domain name has over anything is much less than anybody thought even just five years ago. So in the long run, it might turn out that this is not a huge problem at all.

BRIAN: So immediately, what are the--I mean, can the--whoever's bothered by ICANN's absolute control over this, what specific argument do they bring?

Prof. LESSIG: Well, what they're concerned about is that ICANN is not being sufficiently responsive to people who are making demands for other top-level domains. That's, like, dot-C-O-M, dot-com or dot-edu. They're not being sufficiently responsive to make sure that, you know, there's a diversity up there, that all these domain names aren't primarily in English, for example, or the top TLDs are not in English. So they're just anxious that the organization has not responded to the particular demands that these people are making.

And in principle, I think what ICANN could do could turn out to be very damaging, depending on how they develop their policies. So if they made it very simple for people to take over domain names so that, you know, again, IBM lost control of their domain name too easily, that would be very bad. But the real danger, I think, that, you know, we should be worrying about is not so much whether ICANN is the best structure in the world, but what would the alternative look like and would those alternatives actually bring more trouble to the table than they would be worth.

BRIAN: All right. Well, how does ICANN choose right now? I mean, is it, like, a base system? You brought up Stanford.edu. It seems plain that Stanford University should get that name. But is it, like, an open option for that domain name, like, the highest bidder gets it, or how does their current choosing--selection process work?

Prof. LESSIG: Well, basically, ICANN is not directly in the business of handing out the domain names. What they do is they decide what the TLDs are going to be. So, for example, dot-edu is one of the original seven top-level domains. And there are lots of country code domain names, so dot-US is the country code domain name.

But then there are registrars, and there's lots of these registrars now in competition, that are in the business of actually selling the domain names. So, for example, VeriSign is a registrar. You go to their Web site and you can buy a domain name now very cheaply. And what that company does is then coordinate to make sure that only one domain name like that is sold. And when that is sold, then you own that domain name for as long as you pay the bills. So the actual domain names get allocated in that way.

Now if you come to VeriSign and you say, `I want to buy IBM.com,' and it turns out IBM is not actually owned at that minute--I guarantee it is--but if it turned out like that, then there might be issues about trademark that these registrars would be concerned about. And, in fact, one of the rules ICANN has imposed is that all of these registrars within the system actually exercise a similar process for dealing with trademark complaints. So whenever a famous company is concerned somebody is taking a domain name that is inconsistent with their trademark, then there's a procedure for actually arbitrating or deciding who actually should own the domain name.

NEARY: All right, Brian...

Prof. LESSIG: Sorry.

NEARY: I just wanted to say, Brian, thanks so much for calling.

And I want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Lawrence Lessig, I just wanted to move on to another question, and that is that in August, the Commerce Department blocked the creation of a domain for pornography, and that came after opposition from some conservatives and religious organizations. So is that a case where there's a question of US political inference, possibly the US being involved in censoring the Internet for political reasons?

Prof. LESSIG: Well, I think that is a big concern. And I think what happens from the perspective of the rest of the world is when the United States says all they're interested in doing is setting up an efficient system for allocating domain names, it begins to seem a little bit inconsistent when the government actually exercises some influence to direct the organization in the particular way they've set up domain name.

I think ICANN itself must feel the practical reality that they've got to keep the Commerce Department happy, and the Commerce Department is, of course, a political agency within a very political government. So there's no way that political influences won't have an effect. And so, you know, again, I, at the very beginning of ICANN, was a strong critic of ICANN because I was concerned about exactly this relationship, that the US government would try to exercise control in a way that would be ultimately harmful for the Internet. And, you know, if we lived in a world where we could get the best of all possible systems, it wouldn't be ICANN. But the concern is just what replaces it and what values does that entity embrace. So...

NEARY: Mm-hmm. All right. Let's see if we can get another call in here before the end of the show. Eric in Philadelphia, go ahead. Eric?

ERIC (Caller): Yes. I was wondering if I could hear a couple of specific examples in which countries have complained about not getting decent response from ICANN. What were some specific examples? And actually, I have one more question. That is, if Internet Protocol 6 becomes the major protocol, which I understand expands the number of IP addresses, how important is this going to be in terms of domain control? Thank you.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your questions.

ERIC: I'll take my answers off the air.

NEARY: And maybe you can also explain for us what Internet Protocol 6 is.

Prof. LESSIG: Sure. The big sorts of frustration that most countries have

here is just the slowness to increase the number of top-level domain. There's concerns about the particular role that the United States government plays, but it's just, you know, that there are more ideas for top-level domains that ICANN has just not followed through on.

Now that IPv6, Internet Protocol 6, is just a much larger addressing system for that heart of the domain system called the Internet Protocol address. So every computer is referred to on the Internet not by a name really but by an IP address. And right now that IP is relatively short, and IPv6 would make it so long that basically every single atom in the universe could be--or in our planet could be marked with an IP address and we'd still be able to find it all.

So if we push to that, that doesn't directly affect how the domain name system could function. You'd still have the need to decide how you're going to allocate domain names. But what it will do is facilitate lots of other potential regulation by government. So, for example, governments that want to use the Internet to enforce intellectual property rules or governments that want to use the Internet to better protect privacy or better protect or interfere with free speech, all of these become more possibly regulated with IPv6 just because the system will build in authentication, or could, for individuals, and so it's easier to track down who individuals are who are using the Internet and, therefore, control what, in fact, they do on the Internet. So that could be a substantial change, but it's somewhat removed from what ICANN is doing right now.

NEARY: So, Professor Lessig, this World Summit on the Information Society that is taking place in Tunisia this week, what do you really expect to happen there? Is anything going to happen about this, or is it just going to be a big argument? Is it really politics that we're talking about or is something concrete really going to happen there?

Prof. LESSIG: I think it's certainly politics, I don't think anything concrete is going to happen, but I still think it'll be very important. What's going to happen is a lot of organizations and governments, primarily from the south, are organizing to push a message at the World Summit that, quite frankly, the World Summit has not been eager to hear. And part of that message is about inclusion in the way that the argument about ICANN is and part of the message is really about substantive policy. So the United States and European governments have been very keen that the World Summit not consider issues about intellectual property. But many of us and many people in Tunis right now say, `How can you have a World Summit on Information Society without considering what parts of the information world are controlled and what parts are in the public domain?' So...

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much, Lawrence Lessig. We have run out of time, and I appreciate the time you've given to us today.

Prof. LESSIG: I appreciate that. Thank you.

NEARY: Lawrence Lessig is professor of law at Stanford Law School and a columnist for Wired magazine.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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