TCS Daily


Will the Internet become the UNTERNET?

By Carroll Andrew Morse - October 28, 2005 12:00 AM

The United Nations wants control of the internet. At its November 2005 meeting in Tunis, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) will deliberate its "second phase" of creating a bureaucracy to manage internet governance. The WSIS is run by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a specialized agency of the UN. At the WSIS Preparatory Commission meeting held this past September in Geneva, the European Union joined with countries like China and Iran in rejecting the concept of not fixing what is not broken and decided that increased international supervision -- maybe even international control -- of the internet has become necessary. Why the United Nations should have a special right to manage "internet governance" is unclear. The claim -- like most UN claims -- is based on the idea that, because it has the form of a government, the UN can grant itself whatever government-like powers it desires. In this case, the UN has decided it has an information age power of eminent domain and can take over any communications network of international scope.

The work of the WSIS is frequently cast in terms of the United Nations trying to take control of the internet from the United States. But the goals specified by the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) describe American control as only one aspect of the problem. The August report of the WGIG simultaneously decries "unilateral control by the United States government" and the fact that the highest levels of the internet "perform their functions today without a formal relationship with any authority". In other words, the real problem in the collective mind of the United Nations is not that the United States controls the internet, but that no one does. The shots at the United States are as much marketing as substance; it is easier to sell any program at the UN by adding generous doses of anti-Americanism.

The United Nations either does not understand or is willfully ignoring the fact that the lack of control of the internet is not a bug -- it's a feature! In the words of internet creator Al Gore (not really), the internet was designed to operate with "no controlling legal authority" (sorry, couldn't resist). Facetiousness aside, the internet is decentralized by design. The internet has achieved its unprecedented success by combining a worldwide reach with its decentralized structure. A local connection allows users to transmit and receive information to and from anywhere in the world where another local connection exists. Since all internet users share a common infrastructure, competition and cooperation are based on the quality of ideas, not on their means of transmission.

There is a trade-off between universality and decentralization. A truly universal network can never be fully decentralized. There must exist, in a literal sense, a master address book. There must also exist someone who maintains the address book, keeping multiple websites from trying to use the same name, and making sure that every website can be found from anywhere on the internet.

The designers of the internet solved this problem with decentralized redundancy. They placed a system of "root name servers" at the top of the internet. The root name servers are the final authority for a much larger group of "domain name servers" which form the backbone of the internet. When a web address is entered into a browser, the browser queries a local domain name server to find the location of the requested website. If the local domain name server does not have the information, one of the top-level root name servers is queried. The root name server returns the location of the requested website and stores the location information on the intermediate-level domain name server, so it can be more quickly returned if the same website is sought at a later time.

Each root name server (there are presently 13) is fully redundant, containing a complete map of the internet. The root name server operators set their policies and procedures for synchronizing content through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit corporation overseen by the United States Department of Commerce. The redundancy provides physical security. A local disaster that knocks out a single root name server will not paralyze the internet, because there are 12 other servers that can pick up the slack. Redundancy also provides "political" security. No organization controls more than 2 servers. If one root name server goes rogue and starts assigning its own names and sending users to unfamiliar places, or starts blacklisting websites on its own, the intermediate-level domain name servers can cut the rogue server out of the system.

The root name servers and ICANN are at the heart of the present UN attempt to take control the internet. The WGIG's official complaint is that "the root zone operators perform their functions today without a formal relationship with any authority". The United Nations would like to become that authority. From an organizational culture standpoint, it is hard to imagine a worse choice than the United Nations for maintaining, supervising, and most especially governing the internet. The internet is the triumph of goals over process, designed to require the absolute minimum of hierarchy necessary to maintain a truly universal network. The United Nations nearly always places process before goals. History casts grave doubts on the proposition that the UN would care if the efficiency of the internet ground to a halt, so long as official procedures -- procedures determined by bureaucrats, not techies -- were being followed.

Beyond problems that might unintentionally arise from misplaced priorities, there is also a legitimate fear of intentional interference with internet operations. A single organization given formal control over all of the root name servers could block sites that it did not approve of. The controlling authority would not have to shut down politically incorrect sites, it could simply make them inaccessible by purging their addresses from the root name server files. There is no reason to believe that countries with strong domestic censorship policies, like China and Iran, would not want to give their censors an international reach.

At this time, it is unlikely that the United States will voluntarily allow the UN to force its way into a role in managing the internet. David Gross, the coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department has said so in so many words; "we will not agree to the U.N. taking over management of the Internet". Leaders from both parties of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, including the very liberal and very internationalist Congressman Edward Markey, have publicly backed Gross' position; "the United States should maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file."

So, if the US stands by its position of not fixing what is not broken, what can the UN or the EU or China or Iran do about it? They cannot directly take control of the internet, but they could set up their own set of root name servers. With competing top-level root name server networks in operation, the job of the intermediate-level domain name servers would become more complex. The intermediate level of servers would have to determine a set of conflict resolution rules for cases where the same web address was being used by both networks. Or a domain name server could decide to connect exclusively to one network or the other. Either way, the universality of the internet would be lost. The same web address could send a user to different places, depending upon whether a computer connected to the internet network or to the UNternet network. There would be no guarantee that any given website could be seen from anywhere in the world.

This would not be the end of the internet. A world of multiple internet channels, in most respects, is as manageable as a world of multiple broadcast channels. The danger from a fragmented internet is that it provides an invitation to government regulation. Different root name server networks could lead to an electronic sort of protectionism, where governments mandate that domain name servers based in their countries give priority to, or connect exclusively to, the legislatively approved root name server network. Once a regulatory precedent was set, more restrictive regulations would almost certainly follow.

The United States can no more prevent other countries from operating their own root name server networks than other countries can prevent the US from operating its own. To prevent internet fragmentation, the US should press for increased international participation in the maintenance of the internet -- but outside of the UN. The most free information network in human history is incompatible with an organization that has too long enabled those who would suppress human freedom.

Carroll Andrew Morse recently wrote for TCS about The Bias Towards Brutality and Totalitarianism.

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