WHO WILL REGULATE THE INTERNET — ICANN OR ITU?

The Internet has grown and strengthened to the point where it has become indispensable to our daily lives. Over the last decade or so, the Internet has become the primary backbone for basic communication using telephones. So much so that major telephone companies are switching over to providing Internet connectivity, and not telephone lines any more. The Internet drives business, it enables education, and it entertains people to such a great degree that to take it away would be like suddenly throwing us all back into the Stone Age, technologically speaking.

Even now, there is some heated debate going on at the highest echelons, between two large organizations, over who will ultimately regulate the Internet. There are two contenders. One is the ITU, or the International Telecommunications Union. Originally founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, the ITU is now an agency of the United Nations. Their purpose is to coordinate and manage telecommunication services and operations throughout the world.

The other contender is ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. They are a nonprofit responsible for the smooth operation of the Internet as a whole, through maintenance of databases of unique namespace identifiers that are related to the namespaces of the Internet. Much of their work has to do with DNS, or Domain Name System, the way computers translate human-readable websites to computer-usable numbers. They have regulated the Internet since 1998; they’re a non-governmental organization with hundreds of participants. They’re a voluntary standards organization.

According to some US makers of policy, however, it may be that ICANN and ITU are merely proxies — albeit rather large ones — for a further ranging diplomatic dispute regarding exactly who is going to regulate the Internet.

Since the Internet is what it is, and it is so important, it is regarded by many as a national security interest of the utmost priority. The stakes are indeed high, and they do matter. To sacrifice access to the Internet would be to wither away and die. This is why the dictatorships of the world should under no circumstances be able to gain control of the Internet. Right now they have two choices — they can either cut themselves off, or watch their regime pass away quickly, or they can attempt to control it and watch as their power gets slowly drained away by skilled hackers. Under no circumstances must they be allowed to manifest a third option for themselves.

This all gives us a fairly good metaphor for what’s going on in ITU politics. The brutal powers want to gain control, and it’s the ITU that’s far more vulnerable to their machinations than ICANN. They will claim to be countering “crime” and “terrorism,” all in the name of “security.” Isn’t it interesting, though, that in a recent treaty, China and Russia defined information terrorism to include any kind of speech that might possibly lead to be harmful to the interests of government. With regard to crime, the claims are equally fatuous. If the Russian government desires to persecute Internet crime, there’s a list of hundreds of “criminals” their police would very much like to process, were they allowed to.

So standing behind ICANN seems to be the most sensible thing for the US to do. After all, for all their recent gaffes, they’ve done a pretty good job. Besides, as the saying goes — if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. The big issue with this approach, though, is that the US can’t risk ICANN being entrapped by hostile powers. In turn, that means that the US can’t release its de facto control of ICANN. The status quo prevails, but as it is an unstable situation, constant vigilance on all sides must still be maintained.

But it doesn’t really matter if the US “has control” of ICANN or not; what matters is that no other party has control of it. The key factor is that ICANN remains neutral, so that the entire Internet can remain neutral.

 

About The Author
Michelle Patterson is excited with the new technologies that are threatening to change the way we stay in touch and communicate, particular in business. She works with companies that are introducing these technologies to make understanding them easy for regular people.