Since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva in 2003, many in the United Nations and in the European Union have created the impression that a struggle of epic proportions was at hand with the aim of depriving the United States of its control over the Internet. However, two weeks ago, at the WSIS meeting in Tunis, a compromise was reached.

For the time being, the management of the Internet will not be taken away from
the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and transferred to the United Nations. A new Internet Governance Forum, made up of governments as well as private organisations, will be installed next year. Though its purpose is to strengthen the input of governments on internet policy issues, including the domain name system, it will not act as an oversight body for ICANN. All governments have agreed to work within existing organisations, i.e. within the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) of ICANN. The latter is an American organization, over which the US Department of Commerce has vetoing power, but it was created to ensure that there will be no government control of the Internet.

It is an oversimplification to say that the existing Domain Name System gives the US “power” over the Internet. The Internet is not a governmental institution controlled by a single nation. It started up as a large collection of private nets that were gradually connected to each other. The Net is a dynamic system that is based on standards and protocols, not politics. The standard most people adhere to wins, in spite of any political clout the losing standard may have (much like on the free market).

Considering the Internet’s rapidly changing, decentralized nature, the arrangement in which the server operators set their policies through ICANN has worked reasonably well. When a need for new top level domains, like .com and .org, has risen in the market place it has been easy to implement it.

Last June, ICANN approved a proposal to implement the .xxx domain for sexually explicit material, despite the fact that some found it objectionable and the US Department of Commerce said that it would legitimize pornography. It was the only time the government interfered in the implementation of top level domains. The system suffered a dent in its credibility because of this. In general, however, the American authorities have allowed the system to regulate itself.

This shows the open and non-discriminatory nature of the approval process. Receiving and disseminating information is a basic human right; all should be able to exercise that right on the Internet. For this right to be real, anyone should be able to create new domains according to their needs. ICANN does not allow anyone to control more than 2 of the 13 servers, keeping power decentralized. If a nation tried to shut down a server, it would only hurt itself.

The EU backed the proposal for the UN to deprive ICANN of its control over the name root servers. Fortunately, this could be avoided as it would have allowed dictatorships like China and Iran to gain influence. Today, the Internet is one of the few open fora for people in such countries. However, the attempts of the EU to gain control over the Internet indicates that one must investigate how a more government-controlled system would have affected the citizens in democratic countries.

It is instructive to study how the EU manages its own top domain .eu, which is in the phase of being introduced and is currently opening pre-registration. A first question one could ask is why a domain that specifically targets companies and citizens from the EU is needed. We already have a lot of top domains to choose from in Europe. Of course, there is a lot of pride involved for the EU politicians. Usually, however, new top domains originate not for political reasons but because there is a need for them, which is then cleared with the Internet Engineering Task Force. We have seen new top domains being introduced such as .biz for “reliable” business and .info for pure information sites. But these top domain names are seldom used, precisely because of their artificial nature.

On 7 December registrations for the new top domain .eu will start. During the first phase, the so-called “sunrise” period, only those that have prior rights and existing trade marks can apply for a .eu top level web domain. During the second phase all that have a registered company in the EU can apply. Finally, during the third phase beginning in April 2006, everyone will be able to apply for a .eu domain.

There sure is a lot of paperwork involved in applying. One has to fill out an application form and all documentation verifying prior rights to a trademark or a company name. These documents must be sent by snail mail, or fax, not by email. If one forgets to include a piece of documentation, the application is void. When an application is rejected, one has to appeal to the Czech Arbitration Court.

Because the procedure has been made so complicated, some ISPs are not participating in the process for pre-registration. The .eu top level domain application procedure is the result of a complicated, top-down government led administrative decision. Changes in policy could also become difficult to enact, due to political considerations. Some changes, however, could be necessary soon, since so much of the Internet has changed through the rapid development in recent years. It would certainly not be easier if, instead of the EU, the UN would have set the rules for applications.

Will the .eu domain be a sign of what lies ahead for the Internet? Fortunately, this danger seems to have been avoided at the WSIS 2005 meeting in Tunis, but things can change. The fact that the UN decided to hold the WSIS meeting in a dictatorship such as Tunisia is a bad omen.

The decentralized design of the Internet has served the world well so far. One should not fix what is not broken. Since the contract between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce runs out at the end of 2006, we should make sure that a similar arrangement is prepared for the future.

Self regulation is a lie

I am sorry, but the debacle of the xxx domain (I oppose it too, not on moral but on technical grounds) precisely shows that a self regulating ICANN is an illusion. Even in the free-est country in the world, the government intervenes to impose its ethics. Mr Belien has argued here (convincingly) that that exactly is the worst kind of statism imaginable.

On the contrary we should transfer control of ICANN to the most bureaucratic international institution we can think of. Something like the UN but on top give every member a veto to make sure deadlock is guarantueed. O yes, and any special interest group that bothers to apply too. The practical result will be that no decision can be taken and that the free-for-all that internet naming currently is in the established international (.com, .net, .org..) domains goes on indefinitely.

Sure, no new top level domains will be created anymore, but in the end : should we really need them, a technical solution will be found while the pointy haired governors bicker and fight over proposals long outdated by then.

(Yes, I am partly cynical but also serious here)

Expect Israeli Delisting

The UN is does not look very favorably on certain countries like Israel and Taiwan. Expect sites related to those countries to get delisted from search indexes if the UN takes control of the Internet.

On the contrary

I described an organisation so elaborate that no action could be passed, not even the delisting of Israel. By for example giving every organisation that currently owns a top level domain the right to veto. (Of course Israel and Taiwan would veto delisting themselves)

No the problem with my proposal is not in the delisting but in the creation of new toplevel domains. For example after a hypothetical split of Belgium the creation of a .vla and .wal top level would probably be problematic.