Friday, December 30, 2005

Internet Governance

The websites I frequent often make a big deal about internet governance. The opinions range from "The United States is the totalitarian dictator of the internet" to "ICANN, a U.S. puppet organization, is the totalitarian dictator of the internet." Truly, the breadth of positions is staggering. Still, it is one of the few ways you can actually get news about such obscure topics as the Authoritative Root Zone File. (Never forget kids, when we are talking about internet governance all we really mean is who has write access to a little old text file on some computer somewhere.)

More observant people may remember the squabble in the United Nations over who would retain governance rights over the internet... pitting the United States against, well, everyone else. Apparently the rest of the world didn't quite have the stones necessary to take the fight all the way, because ICANN, a U.S. puppet organization, still "governs" the internet.

The most recent squabble, as reported in the Register, regards the ccTLDs. Before I get to the interesting part, a quick lesson. Top Level Domains, known as TLDs, are that we call .com, .org, .biz, etc. All of those suffixes that attach to the end of domain names. By attaching .com to the domain name google, the internet knows to query the .com root servers to figure out where, exactly, is on the internet cloud. Living in the United States we are familiar with the TLDs, but such is not the case elsewhere.

See, contrary to the viewpoint expressed by my trademarks professor, there is a limited set of useful words in the world. But thankfully computer scientists came up with the concept of namespace to resolve the limitation. Through namespace concepts we can say the the word "burger" means one thing in one context (say at McDonald's), and a wholly different thing in another (insert good burger joint here). When you apply this concept to the internet you get things like and (not linked here for obvious reasons).

This system works all well and good for the United States as we frolic about the .com, .org, and .net TLDs. But what about other countries? That's where ccTLDs come in. The 'cc' stands for country codes. So now the United Kingdom has its own entire namespace to assign as it sees fit, so long as they append .uk to the end. Pretty cool!

Back to internet governance. According to the news there has been some shifting in terms of political governance of a few nations... places like Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the Register (here's that link again) the ccTLDs for these nations belonged to someone before the invasions, and someone different afterwards. These transfers were overseen by ICANN and are seen as some sort of authoritarian powergrab. I beg to differ.

Prior to the Afghan transfer, all ccTLDs related edits to the Authoritative Root Zone File had to be approved by both the current controller and the new controller. The Afghanistan situation was unique because the fellow who was in charge died in the Kabul bombings. This was not the case in Iraq, where the previous controllers lived in the United States and survived the war quite well. But then the Coalition Provisional Authority wanted to give the .iq root servers to the actual Iraqi government. So they asked ICANN, ICANN initially balked saying that the rules require the old holders approval (which they weren't willing to give) but then backed down and made the transfer.

If I've haven't lost you by now, I'm impressed... and you will be rewarded by getting to hear my thoughts on the 5th Amendment Takings Clause. I happen to really like the Takings Clause, it is a very good bargin for both the government and its citizens. Sure, there will also be squabbles with how it is applied, but in general everyone seems to think it's a good idea. Unfortunately, not every country has seen it fit to enact a Takings Clause like protection. If the Iraqi Interim Government wants the ccTLD, it has the sovereign authority to take it... just like it has the sovereign authority to throw its citizens in jail. What seems to have gotten the Register all upset is this unilateral taking, and yet such a taking is just as possible here in the States (or the UK, where the Register is based). The difference between here and Iraq is that when the government takes, citizens are compensated.

So, does the Register expect ICANN, or the United States as a whole, to begin enforcing the 5th Amendment against other nations? That hardly seems like it's our responsibility or our right. If the previous holder of the Iraq ccTLD has a grievance, they should take it to the Iraqi government. ICANN should not stand in judgment of other nation's political systems. To give ICANN that authority is to truly elevate this puppet of the United States to the position of a global government.

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