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Last Updated: Friday, 19 August 2005, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Whose net is it anyway?
Is it time to take control over the net away from the US government, asks technology analyst Bill Thompson?

Image of X-rated magazines in a shop
Pornography has driven certain technological developments
When it comes to politics and policy making, those of us who take an interest in the way the internet is governed are usually treated with mild disdain by our activist friends.

Somehow the details of IP (internet protocol) address allocation, domain name resolution and the creation of new top-level domains (TLDs) by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) fail to ignite the passions of even the most committed policy wonk.

Few people, for example, could tell you any of the tortuous history of the .xxx domain, which is intended for adult-only content, primarily pornography.

Originally proposed in 2000 and initially rejected, the board of Icann was about to give the final go-ahead to this new home for the world's pornographers when the US government said it was unhappy with the proposal.

Because of this approval has been put on hold for a month and may now not happen, despite the fact that there have been years of discussion and consultation and millions of dollars have been spent by those who want to run the registry which will provide .xxx websites.

Jumping and hoops

You have to feel a certain degree of sympathy for ICM Registry, the company set up more than five years ago to push for the idea of an adult-only domain.

After its original proposal was rejected it has lobbied, argued, persuaded and jumped through more bureaucratic hoops than a well-trained circus seal.

Bill Thompson
When it comes to net governance we need to establish a consensus that the UN is the right forum, get some mechanisms in place to replace the compromised Icann, and then work to make them better
Bill Thompson
It is even working with a Canadian non-profit organisation to ensure that only "responsible" pornographers get .xxx domains.

Having done everything by the book and worked slowly and carefully within the Icann process to get approval for the new domain, everything was in place for board approval on the 12 August, after which it would start planning the rollout and begin making money.

Now it is all on hold because the US Department of Commerce has been lobbied by right-wing religious groups.

But all is not lost. In the past the pornography industry has been one of the big drivers behind certain technical developments in web publishing, from video streaming to online payment systems.

It would therefore be rather appropriate if the way Icann has been pressurised when it tries to address the industry's needs forces a rethink of the way the net is managed, and that may well happen.

New proposals

Last month the UN's Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) published its proposals for reform of the way the net is run, and these will be debated at the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.

Having a clear cut case where a national government is able to stamp its feet and get Icann, who is supposed to be in charge of such things, to abandon a two-year process will encourage those who think that the current system is unacceptable.

When it comes to .xxx I am not at all convinced that it is needed or that it will be useful. It may help some people find online porn, but this does not really seem to be a problem without it.

More worrying is that it could be used to create an online ghetto, with countries passing laws that require adult content to register under .xxx so they can be filtered, with the danger that this will be extended to cover anything deemed "unsuitable" for children.

When discussing this issue we need to be clear that pornography is not illegal, however distasteful some people may find it.

The degree to which the people involved are exploited or corrupted, the impact that viewing pornography has on adults, and the measures that can best be taken to ensure that children are not exposed to unsuitable sexual imagery are all uncertain, and the evidence that does exist is ambivalent and subject to multiple interpretations.

Image of a keyboard
Does control of net governance need to be readdressed?
But rational debate is not something we can expect from some political or religious establishments.

The recent furore over the "hidden" sex scenes in the Grand Theft Auto computer game shows just how ridiculous and irrational the debate can get, when a few scenes of CGI consensual sex are used to criticise a game that was happily passed even though it condones violence, lawbreaking and brutality.

The reason we have complicated structures of government, with committees and consultations and formal mechanisms, is to try to make it harder for one group, however vehement, to hijack the process.

The question is how Icann can ensure it is capable of running core internet functions.

One option would be to reform Icann and make it properly independent of the United States Department of Commerce.

The chances of this happening are slim, especially after Michael Gallagher from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said in a speech that the US intends to "maintain its historic role in authorising changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file".

So we need to look at ways of wresting control from the US, and here the only real option is the United Nations.

The existing proposals from WGIG are not ideal, but they are a start. The UN system is not perfect, but it is the only forum we have where national interests can be put to one side and compromise can be sought.

One of the principles that has driven the internet's technical infrastructure from the early days of the Arpanet has been to have "rough consensus and running code" - to find something that most developers can agree on, get something working and then refine and improve it.

When it comes to net governance we need to establish a consensus that the UN is the right forum, get some mechanisms in place to replace the compromised Icann, and then work to make them better.

This is a task that will require the engagement and active participation of the whole net-using community, so I think it is time for my policy making friends to start learning more about root servers and IP version 6.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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