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2005: The year the US government undermined the internet

And no, it's not what you're thinking

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Nuclear option

The Iraq situation is more complicated than briefly outlined above (of which more later), but in a little under two hours, the ICANN Board set aside a process that had held since the very earliest days of the Internet. Not only that but it provided governments with instant, unassailable control over what happens under their designated area of the internet.

If a company running a country code top-level domain refuses to agree to hand over any information or data held by it to the government, either legally, illegally or extra-legally, secretly or not, the government can simply replace the company with a government-run agency. If it refuses to shut down a website, or to redirect it elsewhere, the government can simply replace it with a government-run agency.

It is a nuclear option, but neverthless a nuclear option that didn't exist prior to July. It will also never have to be used - the threat of its use will see any company wanting to keep hold of its livelihood agree to government demands.

Of course this would never happen. Except it has already. Within months of the government-run "Association of Kazakh IT Companies" getting control of Kazakhstan's internet domain, it shut down the website of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen (best known as Ali G). The site at www.borat.kz featured another of Cohen's comic creations, Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakh journalist. It was removed from the Internet.

Why? The president of the organisation said it was so the comic "can't bad-mouth Kazakhstan under the .kz domain name". If you want an example of government-owned and run censorship on the internet, you'll be hard pushed to find a clearer example.

Sleight of hand and powergrabs

What was the method by which the US government managed to undermine its very justification for continuing to run the Internet and instead open the way for state censorship of the Internet?

It came in the controversial "declaration of principles" at the end of June. The aim of the principles was to fire a warning shot at the rest of the world's governments just prior to publication of a United Nations report that recommended control of the internet be taken away from the US government.

There were four principles, the most controversial being the first, which stated the US government would "maintain its historic role in authorising changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file". The second was largely seen as a way of preventing the world's governments from going ballistic since it recognised that "governments have legitimate interest in the management of their country code top level domains".

ICANN and IANA had already decided to adjust vital wording in any ccTLD redelegation process to "address concerns". Agreement between a ccTLD operator and ICANN was now "desirable but not necessary to finalise a redelegation", they had agreed.

Combining this loosening of existing operators' powers with the US principle that strengthened government oversight, ICANN switched control of the internet in one fell swoop to governments. And, of course, it puts itself in the role of judge. This is the phrase that has since appeared in every redelegation following the July meeting: "ICANN has reviewed the request, and has determined that the proposed redelegation would be in the best interests of the local and global Internet communities."

It is with this loose and ambiguous justification - arrived at, you should note, without any publicly available information or debate whatsoever - that ICANN has set itself up as the internet's Supreme Court. And given governments effective control of the internet.

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Next page: Legal semantics

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