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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

Internet Politics as Usual

The Internet development never stops, but a number of recent developments seem to have definite implications for the Internet's future. We take for granted that new services like YouTube and MySpace will keep cropping up. We also see the continuous growth of access to the Internet, whether it be an increased availability of broadband services or access from cell phones. Less noticeable are some of the political developments affecting the direction and nature of the Internet.

At the political and operational center of the Internet is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The heart of ICANN's mission is to coordinate the numeric addresses and names which allow the easy access to information that we've become so used to. ICANN was created by the U.S. Department of Commerce. According to an ICANN fact sheet, the latest memorandum of understanding that governs ICANN's relationship with the U.S. Government sets goals which, if achieved, "will result in a fully independent ICANN organization." It seems, however, that the U.S. Government is having a hard time letting go of its creation.

It was reported that a recent ICANN public meeting held in Lisbon, Portugal, included a discussion of a proposal by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to hold the keys used to "digitally sign" the root DNS zone for the Internet. The idea of securing DNS is to ensure that servers needing to translate address names to numbers will be able to determine that they are communicating with the "real" root server. Technical issues aside, the U.S. DHC proposal indicates an unwillingness on the part of the U.S. government to give up control of the Internet and to let it become an independent and international operation.

This question of ICANN's current and future independence is not a new one. As reported in this column back in December 2005, the attempt to establish a ".xxx" domain to support sites of a sexually-oriented nature was apparently suppressed by the U. S. government. (The .xxx top-level domain application was again rejected at the recent ICANN meeting in Lisbon.) This latest apparent attempt, whether effective or not, by the U.S. government to exert control over the Internet is reviving questions as to whether ICANN can truly be independent.

In an apparent effort to consider its independence, at its December 2005 meeting ICANN established a President's Strategy Committee. The committee's final report was presented at the Lisbon meeting on March 26, 2007. The report encourages ICANN to explore " moving ICANNís legal identity to that of a private international organization based in the US." This would make it similar to organizations such as the Red Cross or the International Olympic Committee. This has led to speculation that ICANN might even move its headquarters to Switzerland.

As it stands now, no single corporation can own the Internet, even if that was possible. A fully independent ICANN would mean that no single country could "own" the Internet. As the Internet continues to expand internationally, it would seem that international cooperation, uninfluenced by any particular political bloc would support the Internet's reach to a fully world-wide scope. But as Galileo and others have known all too well, nothing stifles science and technology better than politics.


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