By Steven Hill
As the planet tiptoes toward experiments in global governance, the World Trade Organization is not the only institution raising concern. Depending on whose description you read, ICANN - the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - is either an innocuous nonprofit with a narrow technical mandate or the first step in corralling the Internet for commercial and other purposes. ICANN is a nonprofit corporation that was chartered by the U.S. Commerce Department to oversee a select set of Internet technical management functions previously managed by the federal government. These functions include fostering competition in the domain name registration market (the selling of .com, .net and .org suffixes, which previously had been the exclusive monopoly of Network Solutions) and settling disputes over "cyber-squatting" (the intentional buying of domain names like McDonalds.com for later resale at exorbitant prices).
That all sounds fairly bureaucratic and benign, but there's more - and it has watchdogs like the Center for Democracy and Technology, Common Cause and the Markle Foundation really worked up. To understand their suspicion, it's necessary to know a bit about what's called the "root server," and the critical role ICANN plays in overseeing it. The root server is a high-powered computer that functions as one of the crossroads of the Internet, through which all requests to view Web pages are routed.
Bizarre as it may seem for a decentralized global network that supposedly "exists nowhere and everywhere," the root server and the various domain servers to which it points constitute the very heart of the Internet. After all the talk over the past few years about how difficult it will be to regulate the Internet, the domain name system looks like the one place where Internet policy can be enforced.
Whoever controls the root server can decide which other servers all Internet users worldwide will be directed to when they try to view any Web site address in the .com, .net and .org domains. Because they hold the authoritative list of names and addresses, controllers of the root server can require server operators to follow certain conditions, such as requiring them to pay a certain fee, to provide particular kinds of information about the people to whom they have handed out specific names and addresses, or to mandate transmission of files in a specified format. Since ICANN controls the root server, it is technically feasible for this nearly anonymous organization to exercise a kind of life-or-death power over the global network. Eliminate the entry for xyz.com from the .com domain server, and xyz.com vanishes entirely from cyberspace.
This raises important policy questions around issues of privacy, sovereignty and cyber-property that have the potential to go far beyond ICANN's narrow technical mandate. How would you resolve the following?
One anti-abortion Web site listed the names of doctors performing abortions and crossed them off as they were assassinated. Another site published the names of alleged British intelligence agents and put their lives and, potentially, British national security, at risk. ICANN has the power to wipe out these sites. Should it do so?
There's a Web site called MartinLutherKing.org, which specializes in slandering the slain civil rights leader. Is that free speech or a violation of the "trademark," not to mention the legacy, of Martin Luther King?
How about a Web site of anonymous Chinese dissidents, broadcasting their message to the world? How should ICANN balance anonymity on the Web - a key element of political freedom - with the right to know who is behind a domain name?
Should ICANN have acted in the case of B92, the courageous and respected independent radio station in Belgrade that had its online identity - b92.net - taken over and used by Slobodan Milosevic?
Should Internet users under the jurisdiction of the Palestine Authority be eligible for an e-mail address ending with .pa, just as users in the United Kingdom have e-mail addresses ending with .uk? How about the Kurds? Who should decide?
As ZoŽ Baird of the Markle Foundation has pointed out, in many instances acting or not acting will have similar repercussions. ICANN must decide what falls within its jurisdiction. Yet, according to the New York Times, ICANN's policy - making process so far has been dominated largely by technical and commercial interests.
Specifically, the first nine ICANN board members (out of 19) were privately selected last fall for seats reserved for "support organizations" representing three different groups: Internet service providers, domain name registration companies and intellectual property interests concerned about protecting their brands online. The first issues the board has dealt with concern cyber-property, domain name competition and other commercial interests. It will be later this year before ICANN finally gets around to selecting the other half of the board from a broader worldwide constituency. But by then the overall tone may have been set.
Not surprisingly, watchdog groups have proposed that ICANN's international board of directors should not only be publicly elected, but also subject to public meetings and disclosure. The Markle Foundation has initiated an Internet Governance Project that will work to make ICANN more open and accountable. This project funded a thorough study of ICANN by Common Cause and the Center for Democracy Technology, which issued a report criticizing many aspects of ICANN's procedures - including its proposal to use indirect elections, its lack of a nomination process, its use of "winner-take-all" rather than proportional representation election methods, and its failure to establish an independent election monitor.
At a March meeting in Cairo, Egypt, ICANN accepted some of these criticisms, agreeing to direct elections for half of its board members. But crucial details still remain to be worked out. Some within ICANN are embracing this call for elected representation and accountability, while others are resisting. Following the March meeting, Internet pioneer Vincent Cerf, an ICANN board member who now works for MCI Worldcom, expressed skepticism, saying, "I'm not sure how [the elected-at-large body] helps ICANN do its job." Board member Hans Kraaijenbrink of the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association in Brussels went further, calling the watchdog report "a study we didn't ask for."
Not too many people are aware of this ICANN business, and that's just fine with certain elements within ICANN. Don't let it stay that way. To find out more information, visit the Web sites of the Center for Democracy and Technology (www.cdt.org/dns) or ICANN Watch (www.icannwatch.org). Any Internet user can become a member of ICANN for free (and vote in a future election) by registering at www.icann.org (so far ICANN has received more than 11,000 membership applications). And ICANN has created an Internet forum where people can post their opinions at www.icann.org/feedback.html or e-mail them to email@example.com.
Let them know what you think, and spread the word. Someday we may look back and realize that this moment was critical in deciding who would control this new form of global communication.
Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org). He is the co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press).