Who Controls the Internet?
Why it doesn't matter if the United States is in charge.
Earlier this month, 15,000 heads of state, NGO do-gooders, businessmen, techies, and technocrats descended on Tunisia for the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society. Delegates discussed the great digital divide separating rich and poor nations and sampled technologies like a $100 crank-powered laptop computer and a solar-powered e-mail terminal. But what hijacked the proceedings was the matter of who should administer the Internet—the United States or the United Nations.
The California nonprofit ICANN has directed traffic on the Web since 1998. ICANN oversees the Domain Name System, the database that makes it possible for you to surf to Slate by typing http://www.slate.com rather than a string of hard-to-remember numbers. It also ensures that each address is unique by managing "top-level domain names"—the dot-suffixes like .biz, .com, and .edu, as well as country codes like China's .cn and Australia's .au.
ICANN hasn't been doing a bad job. For one thing, there have been no major outages in its seven years as cyber traffic cop. Nevertheless, in the months leading up to the summit, a group of countries (most notably Brazil, Cuba, Iran, and Zimbabwe) pressed the United Nations to assume ICANN's functions, while members of the European Union clamored to dilute American control.
The Web has become just another front in the battle between the United States and the rest of the world, and Tunisia was a convenient time and place to vent strong anti-American feelings. Although the United States government has not meddled in ICANN's operations yet, our U.N. brethren fear that an America with a unilateral foreign policy will eventually become an America with a unilateral Internet policy. Other countries have every right to be suspicious. If it wanted, the U.S. government could take over ICANN and block Internet traffic to a nation that harbors terrorists. It could access the databases that house domain names and use the information to take down computers serving up anti-American rhetoric or locate state enemies.
But the idea that the United States "controls the Internet"—or could control the Internet—through ICANN is a canard. Sure, the State Department could pull some gnarly pranks, like funneling traffic from Iranian government sites to porn portals, starving French e-commerce, or wiping Al-Jazeera off the face of the Web. Perhaps that's the equivalent of economic sanctions, but it's a far cry from hegemonic rule. Most online traffic today exists outside the traditional domain-name system in peer-to-peer file sharing and instant messaging. Even if .com somehow got plowed over, any group who wants to communicate would still be able to communicate.
In the months before the Tunis summit, the Bush administration did nothing to alleviate the international community's concerns about the lack of digital globalization. In July, the United States launched what amounted to a pre-emptive strike, declaring it would "maintain its historic role" as domain-name gatekeeper for the indefinite future. Translation: We're not even going to discuss changing the current system.
While no one—not even our allies—trusts the United States to maintain its hands-off policy, the idea of the bloated, scandal-riddled United Nations administering the Net's core functions wasn't met with great enthusiasm either. (The fact that Tunisia hosted the technology summit isn't heartening. In the conference's welcoming statement, Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali suggested that information should be disseminated freely over the Internet only to a point.) It's not clear how a U.N.-run ICANN would operate. If its responsibilities rotated to different nations, it's conceivable that Iran could make arbitrary changes to the DNS servers to cripple traffic to Israel. China could out dissident bloggers who post their work on overseas servers. With an unstable technology infrastructure, Sudan might have trouble keeping DNS up and running.
As usually happens when the United Nations is involved, an agreement was reached to maintain the status quo and table the rest for future study. But calls for the United States to step aside will most likely persist in the years to come. The best solution might simply be to allow any country that wants the job to host the DNS system. How? Peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent.
Here's how it could work, according to computer security researcher Robert G. Ferrell, a former at-large member of ICANN. Countries that choose to house Torrent servers would receive a random piece of the DNS pie over a closed P2P network, with mirrors set up to correct data by consensus in the case of corruption or unauthorized modification. No one country would actually physically host the entire database. In essence, everybody would be in charge, but no one would be in control. Isn't that how the United Nations functions anyway?
It's probably far-fetched to think the United States—or the rest of the world—could agree on a distributive model like this. The most likely scenario is that the United States will cling to its role as the Web's traffic cop until we no longer need ICANN. As computers become embedded in everything from cell phones to PDAs, cars, clothes, and TVs, these networked devices will rely less on DNS servers and more on other connectivity protocols. What diplomacy fails to solve, obsolescence will.
Adam L. Penenberg is an assistant professor at New York University and assistant director of the business and economic reporting program in the school's department of journalism. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph of U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.