Control of the Internet

The InternetIf you follow presidential politics you may have heard a few candidates claim that the US government is giving away control of the Internet. This one puzzled me, and it turns out what they are talking about the transition of the control of the DNS function from US control to a non-profit international body. It turns out that this is something that has been in the works for decades.

The issue involves DNS, or the Domain Name System. This is the system that matches the name of a web site with an IP address. This system allows you to go to the amazon.com website by typing the name address “amazon.com” into your browser instead of having to know the numerical IP address for Amazon.

DNS is essential to ISPs because it tells them how to route a given request on the web. There is one master file of all worldwide web names and the associated IP addresses. And obviously somebody has to be in charge of that directory to add, delete and make changes to web names and IP addresses.

After the early days of the Internet this function went to a group called IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. This group was largely managed by a few staffers, academics, and help from some of the early web companies – all techies who only wanted to make sure that the burgeoning web worked well. And although they didn’t exert any control, the group was loosely under the auspices of the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), a part of the Department of Commerce which had veto power over anything done by IANA.

This power was rarely exercised, but there were many around the world that were uncomfortable with the US Government being in charge of a vital web function. There was a push for an international group to take over the DNS function and in 1998 the function was transferred to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN brought in Board members from around the world and the group has effectively since then been operated with international consensus. But the NTIA still maintained a veto power over things done by the group.

But since it was founded there has been a planned transition to a fully international ICANN with no ties to the US government and on October 1 control of ICANN changed hands and is now operated only by an international Board without oversight from the US government.

Just a few weeks before the planned transfer four states sued to stop the transfer in the US District Court in Texas. Their argument was that the directory of IP names and addresses belonged to the US and could not be given away without approval from Congress.

The opponents to this suit argued that not turning over the control of ICANN was a much bigger threat because it might lead to other countries developing their own DNS databases – and the ability of anybody in the world to reach any web address using the same nomenclature is vital to the concept of an open and free Internet. Interestingly, it was this same concept a century ago – that anybody with a telephone ought to be able to call any other telephone number in the world – that was a driving principle in creating an efficient worldwide telephone network.

The suit was processed quickly and the judge came down on the side of the open Internet and the transition to ICANN. In the end this fight was more about politics than anything substantial. At the end of the day the DNS database is nothing more than the equivalent of a gigantic white pages listing of every address on the Internet. All that really matters is that this database be kept up to date and be available to the whole world. ICANN has had the same international board of techies since 1998 and this transition was planned for a long time. So there is no threat to the US losing control of the Internet folks that saw the headlines can sleep well knowing that this issue was about politics and not about a real threat.

Is the Internet Already Broken?

The InternetI’ve always been interested in the people who run the Internet behind the scenes. The process is known as Internet governance and it’s not the kind of topic that makes for many news articles, but the governance process has gotten us to the Internet we have today, which is very impressive. But there are changes in the governance coming that has some people worried.

Last year it was announced that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a US government agency, was going to to relinquish its oversight of the global Internet naming authority ICANN (International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). ICANN is the private nonprofit organization that oversees how domains are named and assigned, and until now the US has had formal oversight of the process.

Adding to this, there is a huge amount of concern worldwide about how the Internet is being used to spy on governments and people everywhere. Edward Snowden showed that the NTA is basically spying on everybody. Since then it’s been revealed that many other governments are doing the same sort of thing.

Last month one of my blogs had a poll that showed that people in the US don’t like being spied upon, but that as a whole we think it’s okay to spy on everybody else. As you can easily imagine, all of those other people don’t think that is a very comforting idea. And so we now have a number of countries looking for ways to somehow build a firewall around the data originating in their country.

As the NTIA is transitioning out of the governance of the Internet, there is a worldwide scramble to figure out what is going to replace it. The latest buzzword associated with this effort is ‘multi-stakeholder internet governance’, meaning the discussions are asking how the concerns of each country are to be heard in the process. There is a lot of talk going on about ruling by consensus. And this makes a lot of technology experts uneasy, an unease which can quickly be understood when looking to see how other multi-national consensus-based efforts at places like the UN actually function.

The general open concepts of the Internet as we know it today are based upon the strong views of the tech people who built the Internet that it ought to be open and free whenever possible. And so we ended up with this wonderful free-for-all that we call the web where ideas and content of all varieties are available to all. And those tech people are rightfully concerned of somehow handing the decisions off to bureaucrats who won’t care what works the best but who will bring other agendas into the governance process.

Governments around the globe differ extremely by what they want their citizens to see or not see on the web. Even a country that is as close to us culturally as England has some very different Internet policies and has built screens and firewalls that stop citizens from viewing pornography and a large list of other types of content. At the extreme end of that range are places like North Korea that doesn’t let the average citizen see the Internet at all.

And so many of the folks who have been governing the Internet behind the scenes are worrying if we have already broken the Internet as it was originally structured. This issue is not so readily apparent to Americans since we filter very little of the Internet here other than the effort that ISPs make to block malware generating sites.

But much of the rest of the world has already started down the path to wall themselves off from us us and this trend is building momentum. We probably will reach multinational consensus on the easy stuff – how to name web sites and how to route things. But one can legitimately ask if the Internet is already broken when there are already so many countries that block their citizens from using large chunks of what we Americans think of as the Internet.