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ICANN Special: The Triangulations of Esther Dyson

: Whose Internet is it anyway?

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Analysis The prospect of a legal tsunami against ICANN (or the US Department of Commerce, the midwife to this unloved offspring) might make for esoteric reading if you aren't a practising lawyer. But the issue of who gets to control the Internet affects pretty much everyone who uses it.

What's becoming apparent, when you take this news together with the intriguing at-large elections, is that ICANN's much vaunted "consensus" is evaporating rapidly. And ICANN has used this claim loud and often to fend off suggestions that while it may not be perfect, it's the best that anyone can agree on right now.

Take for example, an email ICANN's interim chair Dyson wrote on the August 3 this year:-

"[ICANN's] mission is to reflect the consensus of the Internet community - infrastructure providers, users of all kinds (commercial, political, individual) - but not of the world at large, about how these resources should be managed to ensure the Net's health/growth."

Or to Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News: "She insisted that the organization wasn't nearly as powerful as people claim, because it works by consensus."

Considering that ICANN now ranks in popularity somewhere between the World Trade Organisation and the Trilateral Commission (for you conspiracy theorists) that's a pretty bold claim.

But Dyson has been pursuing a policy roughly equivalent to what Dick Morris, Bill Clinton's sleazy ex-polticial guru dubbed "triangulation". Our British readers know it by a different name: The Third Way. It's a cynical tactic that amounts to stealing your opponents clothes - and then rising majestically above the fray to offer yourself as the neutral alternative. It requires a certain amount of sainthood, and as we'll discover, that's a finite resource.

Where Esther's tactic seems to be failing is simple. Both politically and technically, we increasingly hear, ICANN isn't needed anymore. Let's take each of these triangulations in turn, but before we do, it's important to remember that ICANN marries two roles: domain name management and IP numbers. The Internet will work without the names, but it won't work without the numbers.

Un Anglo Saxon conspiracy, n'est pas?
Few will quibble that the Internet is now an international public resource. But since its birth in the ARPA days it's been effectively overseen by the US government through a succession of contracts. One of these contracts - and the real plumb - went to a Network Solutions Inc, which was given a monopoly over the issuing of lucrative generic top-level domain names, the gTLDs. But it wasn't too long after the Internet went commercial in 1991, and these commercial interests became increasingly non-US, that the need for something that wasn't so American-centric became apparent.

What was remarkable about the IANA era was how little the US government intervened, leaving technical and effectively policy decisions to volunteers and technical bodies such as the NSF and the IETF, who could at least claim some real consensus.

But not everyone thinks that the names and numbers in safer hands than they were when Postel's IANA, the precursor to ICANN. Robin Bandy, network administrator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, founder of OpenNIC and who when we last looked, was running seventh in the nominations for the US at-large elections, certainly doesn't.

"ICANN places American law over other countries' laws even for many operations entirely within these countires. ICANN is the most blatent attempt at a"Pax Americana" we've seen on the Net," he writes in his candidacy documents

And Dyson herself has let slip that far from being some kind of Internet marriage counsellor or the "UN of the Internet", as it whimsically describes itself, ICANN wants to have the kit and the caboodle.

As Jamie Love of the Consumer Project for Technology reported:-

"What [ICANN Chair] Esther [Dyson] told me is they intend to be a free agent and she wouldn't accept an arrangement whereby they have an on-going relationship with any government. They want all the assets, all the power, and they want us to just kiss it off and just say okay, you're free. She wouldn't accept the notion of a charter. That's what she told us."

Trying to triangulate her way out of the damage caused by these now notorious comments, Esther has taken to denying that ICANN's a "world government"

Of course it's not, love. But then you don't need to be haunted by black helicopters to appreciate that ICANN nevertheless is an organisation that has global reach, is performing performing government functions, but only with ICANN you can't vote them out of office. As the European Commission has soberly noted: "ICANN and the GAC are taking decisions of a kind that governments would, in other contexts, expect to take themselves in the frameworks of international organisations"

You've got my number

The other great triangulation that ICANN has so far managed to achieve is on technical issues. It alone claims to have the authority to oversee the distributed system of domain names and numbers. But remember these are really two quite different matters. The numbers can by consent, pretty much look after themselves, with some tender loving care from propeller-heads. In the mid-90s it was feared that the Internet would rapidly run out of IP addresses - the unique numbers that underpin the system. It hasn't, and with IPv6 according to Vint Cerf, there will be more IP addresses than atoms in the known universe.

As for domains, the domain name system that ICANN was created to oversee is essentially a distributed system. Political judgements need to be made of course, but technically it's a case of updating a single file two or three times a week. Top level domains can be added without an ICANN, and without too much trouble. ICANN has made much of the fact that the alternative, or "liberated" DNS servers can't seem to agree on very much. That's true, but they disagree on policy rather than technology. So it doesn't really matter: if one server fails to recognise .vulture, then another sure will.

Bring in the saints

What you're left with then is two issues that can sensibly be sorted out by the kind of neutral, international organisations you never hear about, that usually sort out global technical issues like setting a leap year, or where exactly to put the North Pole this week.

ICANN frequently triangulates that no one has come up with anything better. Ah, but we just have, and plenty of far cleverer people than us have already done so too, in far more detail. Take Ronda Hauben, co-author of Netizens and a long standing advocate of sensible Internet governance, here. Or the Neumann-Weinstein proposalsproposals made by Peter G. Neumann, creator of the Risks Digest and chair of the ACM's public policy committee, and Lauren Weinstein founder of the PRIVACY Forum.

The late Jon Postel formulated the structure of "the new IANA" shortly before his untimely death, and even with the best intentions, and the best people, it's difficult to see how any organisation that's been as willfully obscure as ICANN has been could have survived, carrying both an international political community along with it.

It's been a dirty business since then, and reputations have suffered in the process. The genial Vint Cerf, co-father of Internet Protocols (alas employed by random-billing specialist MCI) can't have enjoyed seeing his request to keep emergency cash donations from major corporate sponsors confidential made public during last summers funding crisis.

And Esther Dyson herself was (we're told) was once a respected entrepreneur and commentator, at least on her home turf among Californian libertarians if not in sceptical Western Europe, where her pontifications were given typically given short shrift. "Vapid truisms ... a sixth form essay someone's mistakenly issued as a book" runs one fairly representative synopsis.

For all the talk of consensus, the only consensus we seem to gather is that ICANN is the wrong kind of organisation, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. ®

Also in today's special:
ICANN Special: New legal hurdles (Part 1)DoC's ICANN contract considered unconstitutional
ICANN Special: New legal hurdles (Part 2) - I Hear You Knocking

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