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Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

Who Owns the Internet?

December 10 - 12, 2003, the first meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Geneva, Switzerland. The WSIS was proposed at the 1998 meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU is an international organization under the auspices of the United Nations which is a coordinating body for telecommunications issues around the globe. The WSIS was devised to foster global discussion in regard to the developing information society and to develop policy and action plans in support of the worldwide extension of online technologies. There's disagreement about whether this summit meeting was a success or failure, but there's no doubt that the Internet stands at a crossroads as it is poised to develop into a truly global network.

True to UN form, a "High-level Summit Organizing Committee" or HLSOC was created under the aegis of the UN Secretary-General. It included representatives from a number of UN agencies, including: FAO, IAEA, ICAO, ILO, IMO, ITU, UNCTAD, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNIDO, UPU, WHO, WIPO, WMO. Lost in that alphabet soup is the exclusion of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. While ICANN is not a UN agency, it's hard to talk about the future of the Internet without talking to or about ICANN.

ICANN?

In fact, the WSIS generated a bit of controversy when all non-governmental representatives (including media) were excluded from a pre-summit planning meeting, including Paul Twomey, the president of ICANN. This is particularly ironic, since ICANN itself has been the recipient of criticism in regard to its ability to represent all Internet stake holders.

The development of the Internet has to date been very much driven by U.S. interests. Internet technology was invented in the U.S. under sponsorship of the Department of Defense and later of the National Science Foundation. The commercial Internet bloomed with the advent of companies like Amazon.com and eBay. So the question is how international is the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers?

ICANN was established to take over the Internet address registry functions that previously had been provided by U.S. government agencies or their agents. ICANN was supposed to be an independent body with an international board that would see that addresses, the heart of the Internet's operation, were equitably provided to those around the world who needed them. ICANN was under contract to the U.S. government for the first two years of its operation, but has operated independently since 2000. ICANN serves as the registry agency for the .com, .net and .org hierarchies, but more importantly runs the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which provides the numeric addresses which make the names work.

So far, this coordination of numbers has included the country code top-level domains like .uk, .au, and even .us, but each of those has it's own registration organization for its names. The question is, does ICANN wield too much power over the Internet. This may be a more important question outside the U.S., since the U.S. government sees the Internet as something to be coordinated by the private sector. This model, however, may not be useful to parts of the world where the public good is seen as coming from the public rather than private sector.

Principles and a plan of action

Out of the first WSIS meeting came a statement of principles and a plan of action. Among the principles was a "challenge is to harness the potential of information and communication technology to promote the development goals of the Millennium Declaration, namely the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achievement of universal primary education; promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women; reduction of child mortality; improvement of maternal health; to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and development of global partnerships for development for the attainment of a more peaceful, just and prosperous world."

The "Plan of Action" included a number of e-objectives such as e-literacy, e-government, e-business, e-learning, and e-health, e-employment, and e-environment, but while the "what" is well defined, the "how" is left undefined. The "who" seems obvious: "National e-strategies should be made an integral part of national development plans, including Poverty Reduction Strategies."

The question remains as to how Internet technologies will be extended to parts of the world where there is overwhelming private sector interest. If we indeed wish to achieve the goals set forth by the WSIS, it will take cooperation and support at all levels. I just hope the world is not faced with the question, "is it possible to do good without a profit motive?"