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Divorcing ICANN and the US won't break the 'net nor stop the spooks

Internet overlord's status is administrative convenience, not holy writ

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The Montevideo statement on Internet governance, and Brazil's intervention in the governance debate, has set a cat among the pigeons, by reviving the debate over globalisation of the Internet's core technical administration.

Along the way, it's also bringing warnings – like this one from Sascha Meinrath in Slate – that letting operations such as ICANN slip outside US hegemony will destroy the free and open Internet, and lead to balkanisation of the Internet.

Today, the Internet is in danger of becoming like the European train system, where varying voltage and 20 different types of signaling technologies force operators to stop and switch systems or even to another locomotive, resulting in delays, inefficiencies, and higher costs. Netizens would fall under a complex array of different jurisdictions imposing conflicting mandates and conferring conflicting rights.

It's a kind of argument that we can expect to hear put louder and more strongly, since it mirrors the criticisms and fears raised every time America begins to fret over an International Telecommunications Union takeover of the Internet. However, given the way the NSA has managed to put the USA offside with pretty much the whole Internet, defenders of the current regime are going to have to patch over the flaws in their arguments if they want the status quo to survive as-is.

1. Regulation of content, communications, and rights is already balkanised

The idea that the Internet somehow truly represents the neutral cloud that appears in PowerPoint slides is a US-centric idea. The reality is somewhat different.

Some of this is easy to see – content censorship, for example, varies wildly from country to country. Some, however, is far less visible. Take the notion of “data sovereignty”, for example, which causes angst among policymakers everywhere except, perhaps, for America (which is ironic given that the PATRIOT Act lay behind most data sovereignty debates, until the Snowden leaks turned the microscope on the NSA).

Nor does the Internet somehow negate the different rights conferred on citizens in different countries. How national authorities react to defamation, hate speech, false advertising and copyright protection depends not on how America regards the Internet, but on their local laws, and a revised ICANN structure wouldn't change that.

The basic issue is this: the technical operation of the Internet isn't the same thing as the content that traverses the Internet, and never has been. Regulation of how global companies pass data around the Internet isn't a balkanisation of the technical infrastructure. Telling Google it has to respect local privacy laws, for example, might be upsetting to The Chocolate Factory, but it doesn't inhibit or prevent a citizen in one country using the Internet to talk to a citizen in another country.

2. Why should the US government control ICANN?

For some reason, American commentators are unshakably convinced that a “free and open Internet” is somehow cognate with “American government control of ICANN”.

The control structure of ICANN is nothing more than a bit of administrative archaeology. What was once a bureaucratic convenience (the decision to constitute ICANN as a company instead of a unit in the Department of Commerce) has, for no other reason than “it's always been that way”, morphed into a philosophical principle.

Why was ICANN established in the first place? To put the administration of domain names and IP addressing at arm's-length to the US government – because administrations in the 1990s recognised the need for separation. Now, the actions of the NSA have led for calls to take key Internet administrative functions further away from Washington.

Who have the latest calls come from? Neither Russia nor China – but from ICANN itself, along with regional registries, the W3C and the IETF.

3. How would ICANN globalisation balkanise the Internet?

Really: the administrative accident that is ICANN is not somehow inviolable.

Certainly, some countries believe in censorship of the Internet (to a certain degree, Australia is regrettably one of those). But the censorship of content takes place now, and has nothing to do with the mechanics of administering the registration of domains, nor with how IP address numbering blocks are assigned to regions, then to networks, and then to users.

In what way is the decision (for example) to let big brands buy their own names as Top-Level-Domains a fundamental expression of Internet liberty championed by America alone?

Or take address assignment: why would an ICANN constituted under a different organisational structure, completely disconnected from the US government, somehow become incapable of assigning address blocks without collision?

It can be argued that the Internet's historical administration has succeeded in its technical mission, to create a global infrastructure that works pretty much the same, wherever your location. It's not clear that internationalising that structure would somehow destroy the technical edifice. ®

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