TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Should the U.S. or the U.N. Control the Internet? Here's a Third Way

Should the U.S. or the U.N. Control the Internet? Here's a Third Way

Phil Earnhardt (
Sun, 13 Nov 2005 23:42:49 -0700

Used with permission from, a web site from Dow
Jones & Company, Inc.

This editorial appeared in print on Saturday's Wall Street Journal
(they started publishing a weekend edition earlier this fall).

As an aside, I think the WSJ does an excellent job keeping its readers
up-to-date on such issues. I fondly hope what they describe never ever
happens, but it certainly sounds possible.


Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
Should the U.S. or the U.N. control the Internet? Here's a third way.

Saturday, November 12, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

It's been a good ride, this whole Internet thing. To hear its boosters
tell it, the Net has, in addition to the porn, online poker and cheap
drugs, given us democratized information, become a tool for the
undermining of totalitarian regimes and given people in the farthest
corners of the Earth a window on the wider world that would have been
unthinkable before Al Gore invented the Internet (sic).

But all that is about to change -- starting tomorrow. The bad news is
that we can't really do anything about it. The good news is that the
changes that are coming probably won't bring about the end of the
Information Age, but merely its evolution.

Before we get to that, you're probably wondering what in the world is
going on -- surely if the whole Internet thing had been called off,
there would have been a press release, right? Well, there was, but you
may not have noticed. Tomorrow, in Tunis, Tunisia, the U.N. is hosting
the World Summit on the Information Society. One of the goals of the
summit is to advance the "internationalization" of what is known as
"Internet governance."

Since its inception, the Internet has been a pretty American affair.
Many fundamental aspects of its architecture are controlled by a
California-based nonprofit corporation known as Icann, short for
Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers. Icann was founded by
the U.S. government and, many believe, is still controlled by it to
some extent. For a lot of different reasons, that makes a lot of
people mad. So, for several years now, the U.N., through events like
tomorrow's summit, has been urging the U.S. to give control of
Icann -- or more precisely, of the root file that maps every Internet
address and connects them to the names, like, that
we are all familiar with -- to the U.N.'s wise stewardship. The
U.S. hates the idea, with good reason. An Internet "governed" by the
U.N. could be expected to travel a familiar road. The countries with
the greatest interest in regulating, limiting or controlling the Net
would pull out the stops to put themselves on the governing board, and
then use the U.N.'s imprimatur to justify the shackling of a once
(more or less) free medium in the interests of cultural diversity, or
"Asian values" or some other bromide.

That the Saudi Arabias, Chinas and Frances of the world would love to
impose their own particular vision of what should and should not be
available on the Internet should surprise no one. All the countries
above have restricted or attempted to restrict Internet access.
America, for its part, has engaged in aggressive enforcement against
offshore gambling sites that are accessible from the U.S.

The U.S. is making apocalyptic predictions of what the U.N. would do
if given control. Those predictions are probably optimistic; U.N.
control would be a disaster. But there is a third way, as Mr. Gore
might say. That alternative doesn't serve the interests of either the
U.S. government, which enjoys the control it currently exercises, or
its critics, who would much prefer to do their censoring under a
multilateral umbrella. But if the U.S. continues its Internet
brinkmanship, the third way will become not only likely, but

That alternative is a fragmented Internet, without a single "root
file" that describes the locations of everything on the Net. The U.S.
government has led many to believe that this is equivalent to
dismantling the Internet itself. But it is bluffing.

Here's how it might work. At some point, China will grow tired of the
U.S. refusal to give up control to the U.N., and it will secede from
the status quo. It will set up its own root server, tweaked to allow
access only to those sites the government deems nonthreatening, and
simply order every Internet service provider in the country to use it
instead of ICANN's. The change will be seamless to most users, but
China will have set up its own private Net, one answerable to the
people's revolutionaries rather than to the U.S. Commerce Department.
Others may follow suit. Root servers could spring up in France, or
Cuba, or Iran. In time, the Internet might look less like the Internet
and more like, say, the phone system, where there is no "controlling
legal authority" on the international level. More liberal-minded
countries would probably, if they did adopt a local root-server, allow
users to specify which server they wanted to query when typing in,

As a technical means of content control, going "split root," as they
say in the business, is too compelling for governments not to give it
a try. But the user experience would likely be much the same as it
ever was most of the time. ISPs, as well as most vaguely democratic
governments, would have an interest in ensuring broad
interoperability, just as no one in Saudi Arabia or China has yet
decided that dialing +1-202-456-1414 -- the White House switchboard
number -- from those countries should go somewhere else, like Moammar
Gadhafi's house. Nothing stops phone companies from doing things like
that, except that the market expects a certain consistency in how
phone calls are directed, so it is in the interests of the operators
to supply what the market expects. The same principle would apply in a
split-root world.

Would it be better if countries that want to muck around with the Net
just didn't? Sure. But they do want to, and they will, and it would be
far better, in the long run, if they did so on their own, without a
U.N. agency to corrupt or give them shelter. It's time to drop the
apocalyptic rhetoric about a split root file and start looking beyond
the age of a U.S.-dominated Internet. Breaking up is hard to do, but
in this case, the alternative would be worse.

Mr. Carney is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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