TCS Daily


Web of Confusion

By Constantin Gurdgiev - October 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Just weeks before the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, the European Union is gaining international support for its proposal to internationalize control of the World Wide Web. Adopted by EU telecommunication ministers in July, the plan aims at finding "a new model for international cooperation without setting up new institutions".

This would replace the current system managed by the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) subject to California state law and operating under a contract with the US Department of Commerce.

ICANN handles the Domain Name System (DNS) -- an allocation system of Internet Protocol addresses and registration of top domains, such as .org, .com and .eu, to name just a few -- that allows computers to communicate across the World Wide Web.

In place of the existing structure, the EU is calling for "the establishment of an arbitration and dispute resolution mechanism based on international law".

The EU proposal was supported by some larger countries threatening to set up regional facilities if the ICANN system is not reformed. According to the EU's IT Commissioner, Viviane Reding, if the leaders of China, Iran, Brazil, Pakistan and Arab States "have an impression that the internet is dominated by one nation... then the result could be that the internet falls apart".

In a bipartisan effort to stop the EU-led mission, members of the US House of Representatives said that "given the Internet's importance to the world's economy, it is essential that the underlying domain name system of the Internet remains stable and secure."

The Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), an international trade group, agrees. ACT President Jonathan Zuck stated that "We can only assume that the EU made this proposal with the best of intentions, but all those who cherish the dynamism, openness and freedom of the Internet must be concerned about where it could lead... The European proposal would replace the current effective system with a bureaucratic government coalition. The question that must be asked is: Can such a body really be effective and efficient?"

There are many good reasons for opposing the EU idea.

First, international regulation will be hard to implement given the absence of legal and infrastructural framework to legislate and enforce dispute resolutions.

Second, the EU proposal will create a bureaucratic superstructure with no checks and balances that will hold the keys to the World Wide Web community. Currently, all actions by ICANN are subject to oversight within one of the most advanced court systems in the world - the State of California. The Brussels proposal will replace ICANN with an unaccountable and uncontrollable multinational bureaucracy.

Third, the EU plan will create a legal vacuum in the vast universe of electronic commerce, culture, social interactions, communications and knowledge. This potentially places unlimited powers to regulate international and national commerce, research and freedom of speech at the hands of the new multinational authority.

Fourth, the ICANN successor, as envisioned by the European Commission, will hold immense unrestrained powers to collect, store and distribute private information. If you think that the current waves of identity fraud sweeping across Europe and the US are bad, wait until the UN-styled corrupt and inept apparatchiks are running the World Wide Web.

Fifth, there is a problem of keeping the Web open to free commerce. A singular, supra-state authority will be susceptible to the pressures to generate revenue for the multinational organizations, such as the UN. Coupled with the massive cost of setting up and operating the international version of ICANN, Web users can expect the EU-level taxes levied on internet transactions and exchanges.

Sixth, there is the sticky issue of access to arbitration. Currently, arbitration under California law is supported by a large number of general law firms, available to any plaintiff, with costs of arbitration not exceeding any regular legal expense. The sky is the limit for costs of taking the supra-national monster to court.

Finally, a major argument against removing the US jurisdiction over ICANN rests with the fact that the majority of countries opposing the current system are notorious for restricting freedoms of press, information and speech in their homelands. China and the majority of Arab countries spearheading the push for international oversight over the Web, place draconian restrictions on internet in their own countries. Iran uses the Web to spread racial and religious hatred and support international terrorism. Making the whole internet subject to corrupt, inefficient and politicized multinational bureaucracy will make further censorship by these states even easier.

Since funding the development of the internet in the 1960s, the US government always maintained its claim to have the rights to oversee ICANN. Despite having a legal capacity to do so, the US government never interfered in ICANN's operations and decisions.

The organization has operated over the years with a flawless record, creating a unified set of technical standards under the TCP/IP system which supports daily traffic in excess of one billion users and 27 billion sessions per day.

In contrast, experts are warning that the EU proposal, if accepted, can lead to the emergence of the untested models of internet governance, adoption of which could lead to the collapse of global communications networks.

This new bureaucracy could become an impediment to the technological innovation that fuels the World Wide Web. Until now, the internet has been a reliable, stable and functional network that expanded at unprecedented rates. In contrast, no single bureaucratic system was ever developed to accommodate even the modest progression of innovation without restricting the speed of technological evolution. It is unlikely that the world's least flexible bureaucracies, such as the EU or the UN, can break this pattern.

Despite the claims made by China, Brazil, Iran, Pakistan and other nations supportive of the EU proposals, ICANN's operations already support an international stakeholder platform for governance. Its board of directors has several non-US members and can be further expanded to include representatives from other nations.

Instead of attempting to work with ICANN to advance international cooperation on technology, widen access to the World Wide Web and pressure totalitarian regimes through reducing their ability to control information, the Commission is seeking to bureaucratize, politicize and undermine the issue of the DNS management.

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