Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/12/29/us_undermines_internet/

2005: The year the US government undermined the internet

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

By Kieren McCarthy

Posted in Media, 29th December 2005 19:34 GMT

2005 in review 2005 will be forever seen as the year in which the US government managed to keep unilateral control of the internet, despite widespread opposition by the rest of the world.

However, while this very public spat went on, everyone failed to notice a related change that will have far greater implications for everyday internet users and for the internet itself. That change will see greater state-controlled censorship on the internet, reduce people's ability to use the internet to communicate freely, and leave expansion of the internet in the hands of the people least capable of doing the job.

It is also another example of where the US government's control has - in real, verifiable terms - had a direct, unchecked impact on the internet, despite constant assurances that it takes only a benevolent and passive role. And it has come as a result of the US administration's hugely controversial decision to invade Iraq.

Redelegation

We are talking about the ever-troublesome redelegation process for country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) - like .uk for the United Kingdom, .fr for France and .de for Germany.

There are currently 246 ccTLDs in existence (although there should really only be 240), and every year, there are arguments over who should be entitled to run them. Mostly ownership of the domains is stable but in recent years African governments have been keen to take more of a role in running their country's Internet, causing a glut.

This year, 2005, there have been seven redelegations: The Falkland Islands (.fk); Hong Kong (.hk); Iraq (.iq); Kazakhstan (.kz); South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (.gs); Timor-Leste (.tl); and Tokelau (.tk).

Of these, three were agreed to before July and are of little consequence, being no more than agreed changes in owner or country circumstances.

However, on 28 July 2005 at a special board meeting of internet overseeing organisation ICANN, ownership of both Iraq (.iq) and Kazakhstan (.kz) was changed in a way that soon after saw a change in ownership for South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (.gs) and Tokelau (.tk).

At that meeting, consciously and for the first time, ICANN used a US government-provided reason to turn over Kazakhstan's internet ownership to a government owned and run association without requiring consent from the existing owners. The previous owners, KazNIC, had been created from the country's Internet community.

ICANN then immediately used that "precedent" to hand ownership of Iraq's internet over to another government-run body, without accounting for any objections that the existing owners might have.

Previously it had always been the case that ICANN would take no action (and only ICANN, through IANA, can actually change ownership of a ccTLD) unless both sides were in complete agreement. Now, ICANN had set itself up as the de facto world authority on who should run different parts of the Internet.

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.

Legal semantics

ICANN's efforts to turn itself into the Internet's government in this area stretch the phrase "redelegation" itself. Despite repeated requests by ccTLD owners themselves, it is ICANN that insists on calling the process of changing the name of the administrative or technical owners of a particular ccTLD "delegation".

The operators themselves prefer the terms "change of manager", "change of technical contact" and, in the case of more technical changes "change of name servers".

The advantage of the term "delegation" is that it has legal connotations. If you are delegating something, it automatically implies that the delegator has some form of legal authority over the delegee. This is something that most country code managers would strongly disagree with in the case of ICANN.

The case of Iraq

Why did the US government allow this sleight-of-hand from an organisation that it has overall control over? Simple: Iraq.

When the US government took over Afghanistan in 2001, it was fortunate in that the current ccTLD owner was killed during bombing of Kabul. It simple forged the man's signature on a piece of paper handing over control to the US-created authority and the job was done.

Control of Iraq's domain was far more complicated however. The .iq domain was registered instead to two brothers living in the US. The Elashi brothers and other members of their family at the time were also in US jail awaiting trial for funding terrorists - which in the end amounted to shipping computer parts to Libya and Syria and for which they all received hefty sentences.

The US was keen to turn over Iraq's internet over the US-run administration but the whole process was political dynamite. Head of the temporary government, Paul Bremer, wrote to ICANN head Paul Twomey requesting ownership of .iq, but Twomey had to say it wasn't possible because the rules dictated that the Elashi brothers agree - something that was pretty unlikely. We only found out about that letter a year later however, and the letter does not appear on ICANN's website.

The situation infuriated the US administration which immediately sought to change how things were done. At the same time however, the US government could not be seen to be demanding that the .iq domain be handed over to whoever it said, because it would undermine its very position at the head of the Internet. It was also inevitable that any such move would attract media attention and criticism.

And so a method was devised by Washington and ICANN to ensure that the rules could be bent. And so they have been. As a result no one single soul is better off, and governments have been given control over the internet by the backdoor. Now you know. ®

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Related links

IANA report on .iq [pdf]
IANA report on .kz [pdf]
US internet "principles"