[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 14 November 2005, 12:05 GMT
The US role in running the net
Professor Derrick Cogburn of Syracuse University explains why the US has to accept change in how the internet is run.

Image of a woman using computers
Governments want more influence over the internet
In the run-up to the UN World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, a coalition of developed and developing countries attacked the US's unilateral control of the internet's domain name system.

They proposed the establishment of a multinational council to supervise the net.

In response, the US has focused on the need to provide stability for the internet.

But the US position undermines the very stability it has pledged to protect. It should internationalise governance of the internet, but in a way that avoids intrusive, centralised control.

In theory, internet governance refers to the making and enforcement of collective policies for the global net community. Many of these policies are quite technical, such as the policy for expanding the character sets used in domain names.

However, they also have social and political consequences. In practice, much of net governance boils down to physically managing the internet's system of unique identifiers, such as domain names and internet addresses.

Influence over the net

In 1998 the US government established an innovative approach to running the internet by subcontracting these functions to a private, not-for-profit corporation with international participation: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann).

Since its founding, Icann has administered the domain name system, introduced competition among domain name registrars, and created a dispute resolution process for trademark conflicts.

Professor Derrick Cogburn
Icann needs lawful, rule-bound oversight. Governments should agree on clear limits to its responsibilities, and they should agree on means of enforcing those limits
Despite these successes, Icann has come under increasing pressure for reform. One reason is simply that governments want more influence over the internet and they see Icann as encroaching on their sovereignty.

Another reason is that most countries worry about unilateral US oversight. Political pressure on Icann has zeroed in on this issue: if the US government has that power, why shouldn't others?

Not surprisingly, the US has resisted such pressure, sometimes to the point of seeming blind to the problem.

Ahead of WSIS, the US administration released a "Statement of Principles" strongly reasserting its intention to maintain unilateral control of Icann. It claims such control is necessary to maintain internet "stability".

By posing the argument in this way, the US hopes to frame the issue as incontrovertible.

Of course, nearly everyone recognises the importance of a stable and functioning internet. However, the biggest problem with the "stability" argument is that this vague statement creates intense confusion about what it means or how it can be achieved.

Surely, stability of the net cannot be simply; "we're happy with the way things are now, so don't rock the boat".

Proposals for change

Certainly, Icann requires legal supervision and accountability mechanisms. As a private yet global organisation, with regulatory and "taxing" powers over the domain name supply industry, it has potentially expansive powers over net users. It needs government oversight.

However, oversight does not mean arbitrary reviews, vetoes or second-guessing by a council of governments.

That kind of oversight risks subjecting the domain name system to the vagaries of geopolitics and undermining the efficient and fair administration of the internet's unique identifiers.

Icann needs lawful, rule-bound oversight. Governments should agree on clear limits to its responsibilities, and they should agree on means of enforcing those limits.

True oversight means that well-defined, internationally agreed rules or judicial processes should provide recourse if Icann abuses its authority. Internationalising such oversight means that no single government can subject the net to its national self-interest.

Role of the US

Any transition raises short-term uncertainties, fears and risks. That is why it is essential that the US government take a cooperative and progressive role in internet governance.

The US must accept the need for change and actively put forward viable ideas for the internationalisation of its oversight and supervision functions.

It is better to be proactive now than reactive later, when competing and hostile interests may threaten its control.

The US should be willing and able to advocate principles and norms of administration and governance that will preserve the freedom, openness and innovation of the internet, and obtain the binding agreement of other governments on those principles and norms.

Derrick Cogburn is a member of the Internet Governance Project, a consortium of academics with scholarly and practical expertise in international governance, internet policy, and information and communication technology

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific