This editorial appeared in print on Saturday's Wall Street Journal (they started publishing a weekend edition earlier this fall).
As an aside, I think the WSJ does an excellent job keeping its readers up-to-date on such issues. I fondly hope what they describe never ever happens, but it certainly sounds possible.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do Should the U.S. or the U.N. control the Internet? Here's a third way.
BY BRIAN M. CARNEY Saturday, November 12, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST
It's been a good ride, this whole Internet thing. To hear its boosters tell it, the Net has, in addition to the p*rn, online poker and cheap drugs, given us democratized information, become a tool for the undermining of totalitarian regimes and given people in the farthest corners of the Earth a window on the wider world that would have been unthinkable before Al Gore invented the Internet (sic).
But all that is about to change -- starting tomorrow. The bad news is that we can't really do anything about it. The good news is that the changes that are coming probably won't bring about the end of the Information Age, but merely its evolution.
Before we get to that, you're probably wondering what in the world is going on -- surely if the whole Internet thing had been called off, there would have been a press release, right? Well, there was, but you may not have noticed. Tomorrow, in Tunis, Tunisia, the U.N. is hosting the World Summit on the Information Society. One of the goals of the summit is to advance the "internationalization" of what is known as "Internet governance."
Since its inception, the Internet has been a pretty American affair. Many fundamental aspects of its architecture are controlled by a California-based nonprofit corporation known as Icann, short for Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers. Icann was founded by the U.S. government and, many believe, is still controlled by it to some extent. For a lot of different reasons, that makes a lot of people mad. So, for several years now, the U.N., through events like tomorrow's summit, has been urging the U.S. to give control of Icann -- or more precisely, of the root file that maps every Internet address and connects them to the names, like OpinionJournal.com, that we are all familiar with -- to the U.N.'s wise stewardship. The U.S. hates the idea, with good reason. An Internet "governed" by the U.N. could be expected to travel a familiar road. The countries with the greatest interest in regulating, limiting or controlling the Net would pull out the stops to put themselves on the governing board, and then use the U.N.'s imprimatur to justify the shackling of a once (more or less) free medium in the interests of cultural diversity, or "Asian values" or some other bromide.
That the Saudi Arabias, Chinas and Frances of the world would love to impose their own particular vision of what should and should not be available on the Internet should surprise no one. All the countries above have restricted or attempted to restrict Internet access. America, for its part, has engaged in aggressive enforcement against offshore gambling sites that are accessible from the U.S.
The U.S. is making apocalyptic predictions of what the U.N. would do if given control. Those predictions are probably optimistic; U.N. control would be a disaster. But there is a third way, as Mr. Gore might say. That alternative doesn't serve the interests of either the U.S. government, which enjoys the control it currently exercises, or its critics, who would much prefer to do their censoring under a multilateral umbrella. But if the U.S. continues its Internet brinkmanship, the third way will become not only likely, but inevitable.
That alternative is a fragmented Internet, without a single "root file" that describes the locations of everything on the Net. The U.S. government has led many to believe that this is equivalent to dismantling the Internet itself. But it is bluffing.
Here's how it might work. At some point, China will grow tired of the U.S. refusal to give up control to the U.N., and it will secede from the status quo. It will set up its own root server, tweaked to allow access only to those sites the government deems nonthreatening, and simply order every Internet service provider in the country to use it instead of ICANN's. The change will be seamless to most users, but China will have set up its own private Net, one answerable to the people's revolutionaries rather than to the U.S. Commerce Department. Others may follow suit. Root servers could spring up in France, or Cuba, or Iran. In time, the Internet might look less like the Internet and more like, say, the phone system, where there is no "controlling legal authority" on the international level. More liberal-minded countries would probably, if they did adopt a local root-server, allow users to specify which server they wanted to query when typing in, say, Microsoft.com.
As a technical means of content control, going "split root," as they say in the business, is too compelling for governments not to give it a try. But the user experience would likely be much the same as it ever was most of the time. ISPs, as well as most vaguely democratic governments, would have an interest in ensuring broad interoperability, just as no one in Saudi Arabia or China has yet decided that dialing +1-202-456-1414 -- the White House switchboard number -- from those countries should go somewhere else, like Moammar Gadhafi's house. Nothing stops phone companies from doing things like that, except that the market expects a certain consistency in how phone calls are directed, so it is in the interests of the operators to supply what the market expects. The same principle would apply in a split-root world.
Would it be better if countries that want to muck around with the Net just didn't? Sure. But they do want to, and they will, and it would be far better, in the long run, if they did so on their own, without a U.N. agency to corrupt or give them shelter. It's time to drop the apocalyptic rhetoric about a split root file and start looking beyond the age of a U.S.-dominated Internet. Breaking up is hard to do, but in this case, the alternative would be worse.
Mr. Carney is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.
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