Who Owns the Internet?

Should the United States own the Internet? It seems like a pretty silly question to ask given the global and seemingly indestructible nature of the network, but it is a question the international community has posed repeatedly of late.

The .xxx domain was in the closing stages of being accepted after years of bickering in the creation of a ‘red light’ district for the Internet.

This would open up a whole slew of domain addresses dedicated to online pornography (http://www.whitehouse.xxx for example).

However, the religious right in the United States poured letters into the government protesting the domain.

Michael D. Gallagher, assistant secretary for communications and information at the Commerce Department, intervened with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the central domain registrar of the Internet, and asked for the rejection of the domain name.

The domain had been expected to pass, but given the Commerce Department’s veto power on all decisions within ICANN, the domain has since been put into suspended animation.

The international community has become outraged, more so with the symbolic nature of the United States’ ability to interfere with the now internationally used Internet than with the loss of the domain itself.

Countries like China, Brazil and Iran do not like the United States’ ability to interfere with their markets on such a level that could leave them devastated.

Similar to the devastation after Bush’s unilateral approach toward Iraq, a unilateral approach toward the handling of the Internet could result in similar chaos.

Already, there is talk of countries splintering off and forming their own Internets. With all of the network infrastructure already in place, this worst-case scenario is technically feasible. This solution, however, would take away what has made the American Internet so great: its global nature.

Next week, delegates from around the world will meet to discuss the future of the Internet.

Central to the discussions will be the question of who will govern the Internet.

The American stance on the issue has been quite clear thus far. America sees the Internet as one of its greatest achievements, and would like to see its accomplishment recognized through continued power of the Internet.

Commercial entities, too, would like to see power continued to be placed in American hands. They see the bureaucracy of world entities like the United Nations and fear that the Internet could be subject to international bickering.

Local politics in parts of the world like China, where the ‘Great Firewall’ keeps the users tuned to only what China has approved (using technologies that companies like Cisco specifically developed for filtering China’s Internet), could become embroiled in future developments of the Internet.

On the flip side, the international community sees the potential for abuse of power that could be if the Internet remained in American hands.

With a few keystrokes, economies can be destroyed by taking entire countries offline. They believe that something like the Internet with such global influence needs to be regulated by a nonpartisan party.

A middle ground must be found, but regardless of where it is, it will most likely require the United States to yield some of its power.

As the original creator of Internet, the United States will, at the very least, require at least symbolic control over the operations of the Internet.

More likely, the United States will require a considerable amount of weight in all decisions pertaining to the Internet.

Foreign countries will push for a United Nations-controlled Internet.

With the likelihood of countries actually pulling out of the Internet highly unlikely, it is doubtful that this will happen unless countries are willing to concede on other fronts.

In the end, like all international conferences, this first meeting will likely result in baby steps towards the true globalization of the Internet.

James Huang is a fourth-year information and computer science major. He can be reached at huangjl@uci.edu.