By design, the internet is a highly decentralised global network of networks, bound together by simple protocols, ultimately controlled by no one. This has been an important factor in s remarkable growth and adaptability. Yet developments in the next few weeks could upend this arrangement.
Next month in Tunisia, a UN conference known as the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) will consider options that would fatally undermine the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the private-sector-led body that oversees the internet's DNS.
The DNS is a system of computer files with pointers that ultimately link to the top-level domains. At the top of the chain is the authoritative root system, the main part of which is a file with about 200 entries that correspond to the generic top-level domains (.com, .net, .org) and a country-code top-level domain (.us, .uk, .jp) for nearly every nation in the world, along with their unique IP addresses. The root system is key to the internet as a unitary global network. If there were multiple or non-interoperable roots, the internet could be Balkanised into non-interacting parts.
The WSIS will consider several options, some of which have Icann reporting to the UN (United Nations) or have UN bodies replacing Icann subgroups. As justification for this, the UN cites "unilateral control by the United States government" over the root, and the secondary role for governments at Icann. In addition, earlier this month in Geneva, European Union states joined many other governments of developing countries in calling for a new, intergovernmental body to oversee the internet.
The US government's role has been misunderstood and misrepresented. For historical reasons, the Commerce Department reviews the process by which Icann makes root changes and gives final approval for any such modifications. Typically, these are routine changes in the IP address of a top-level domain - invisible to internet users, and with no effect on content, but which could affect the stability and security of the internet if handled improperly.
The Commerce Department has never overturned an Icann decision, and with Icann's growing capacity and legitimacy, there is no reason to suspect that it ever will. Icann, with its multi-stakeholder model, really makes the decisions, not the US government.
Frankly, the US government, by creating Icann in the first place, voluntarily relinquished this power to the international internet community - something that the UN group does not adequately recognise.
That said, it is clear that governments around the world do have a legitimate interest in internet governance and an important role to play in Icann's management of the DNS. To its credit, the UN report recognises that internet governance is broader than the DNS, and that national authorities have an important role to play in areas such as spam, cybercrime and access. As a US senator, I would not want Icann or the UN to tell me I could not look at these issues, and I am sure other legislators and policymakers around the world feel the same way.
But it is very important not to break something, especially for spurious political reasons, that is starting to work well. Icann manages only the "plumbing" of the internet. It is run by private-sector experts and is accountable to the global internet community, including all UN member governments. I hope the final WSIS meeting next month will adequately recognise this. I suspect that many internet stakeholders around the world have the same uneasy feeling that I do about the possibility of a politically driven UN takeover of Icann's functions. I hope to hold a Senate hearing on this issue later in the year, to make sure that Congress understands what is at stake.
It is very important that the set of values embedded in the internet's current open structure and governance not be substantially changed. People everywhere would be badly served if we allowed control of the internet to be transferred from competent experts to a political body without relevant experience.
That decision will be taken later this year. I will follow these developments closely, and I will continue to work to ensure that the internet remains the remarkable global resource that it is today.