It sounds like something you don’t want to know too much about. When you type an address into your computer’s browser, you go to that address. How your computer knows where to find the Google image of kittens and puppies isn’t your problem, is it? Well, it might be. Not kittens, perhaps, but what if you want to find the Israeli Ministry of Tourism or the American Constitution?
DNS and ICANN are acronyms you should know. DNS is the Internet domain name system — a single list that gets you to the server that runs the program you’re looking for. ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which manages DNS under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce. If it sounds like an American monopoly, it is — for now, but not much longer.
Although the Internet is an American invention — by the Pentagon — ICANN has an international board of “stakeholders,” including foreign governments, civil society activists and corporations. They have long wanted control and they are about to get it. The U.S. has agreed to give up exclusive control of ICANN to an international governing system yet to be developed. However the system emerges, what is clear is that the Commerce Department will no longer manage the list. Russia and China have argued for individual countries to manage the DNS — which would enable them to decide which organizations, companies, or individuals could have a domain name; and when to remove access to a domain name. Others have argued for a UN body to take over — with all the political machinations one would expect, including discrimination against Israel and the United States.
Business Week explains:
That is the advantage of the current… single-domain-name system. No country (other than the U.S.) gets to decide what idea deserves a Web address, and while U.S. policies and practices in other cyber realms have been less than stellar, it has been an outstanding protector of free speech on the Internet. Power can exist even when it isn’t exercised or even visible. The Commerce Department has ensured the growth of a lively, commercial, obstreperous Internet in the same way the European Union thrived, in part, under the protective umbrella of all those American tanks waiting to roll into the Fulda Gap.
It is true that American government spying has reached a level that offends a great many people, including a great many Americans, but at a minimum we can and do have a history of constitutional protections to redress government excesses and misguided policies, and to protect our privacy. Edward Snowden, NSA, breaches of personal data by Target and other commercial entities, and concerns by technology security professionals about the ObamaCare website appear to have ignited precisely such a debate.
Elsewhere, on the other hand, more governments are interested in limiting the Internet than are interested in allowing the promotion of ideas they — the governments — find offensive or dangerous. Russia might want to “lose” the Ukrainian domain name; China might do the same to “FreedomforUyghurs.org” (yes, we made that up); and how many would block Israeli addresses? What if Greece’s Golden Dawn Party applied for “Nazi.com”? There is also Venezuela and its ALBA allies Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ecuador; Brazil, where President Dilma Roussef has made her mark criticizing American spying; Iran; and Muslim-Brotherhood-supporting Qatar and Turkey (which also has a serious problem with domestic discord). There are countries that want to be able to “protect” their citizens from ideas/people/political associations that are anathema. Saudi Arabia just banned 51 baby names “offensive to Saudi culture.” Included are Alice, Linda, Eleanor, Benyamin, and Arabic names that have a royal and/or religious connotation, or otherwise offend Saudi government sensibilities. What might Egypt ban?
All and more are candidates for joining a bloc wanting to limit the spread of American ideas. All have reason to support a bloc that ensures no American dominance of international avenues of communication, and all would support restrictions on non-government-controlled avenues. The whole notion of free speech and free access to information is at risk, just as people in many parts of the world were getting used to it.
And if we’re considering the West as our ally in this, even Germany, supported politically by other Western European countries because of NSA spying, will be tempted. Australia’s communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, had very mixed views. He applauded the decision, calling it, “A momentous day in the history of the Internet,” and said American involvement was “central, but increasingly symbolic.” America, he added, “has aroused more and more controversy and from some quarters animosity” as stakeholders wonder, “How could the Internet belong to the world and yet at its very heart be overseen by a contract with the U.S. Government?” Yet even Turnbull worried that the new system “must be one which supports and enhances the multi-stakeholder model and in particular must not involve the replacement of the U.S. Government with a government-led or inter-governmental organization, like the UN.”
OK, so it can’t be America, it just has to function like America. Spoken like a liberal. The fact that the U.S. has stopped insisting on American control of DNS and ICANN is yet another indication that President Obama is willing to trust the “international community” to do the right things. Good luck to the president and to Mr. Turnbull. In the real world, the U.S. is the bogeyman and Israel is its adjunct.
Nothing is likely to happen to Internet governance for another year or so, until the new system and its regulations are developed. But absent the emergence of a large, international group of free speech advocates, it is coming. Your Google kittens and puppies may be safe, but the free exchange of ideas, including ideas — and countries — deemed “offensive,” “dangerous,” or “unacceptable” is one step closer to regulation by countries that find an extraordinary number of ideas and countries offensive, dangerous, and unacceptable.