Who Really Controls Internet?

The recent U.S. decision to control the Internet is no big deal.

Last week the Bush Administration announced that it was backing out of a pledge it had made, saying the U.S. government would retain control over the Internet.

You may have heard that no one controls the Internet. That's sort of true for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, the Internet is a "network of networks," meaning that although it has its own backbone and connections, it also comprises lots of other networks -- educational, corporate, government, and so on. Take the Internet backbone away and those other networks would probably work just fine.

Second, the Internet isn't really a thing any more than "government" is a thing. It's just a whole lot of computers that all speak the same language that happen to be connected.

But, just as government has evolved a massive bureaucracy to support it, so too has the Internet. In the Net's case, the center of that 'bureaucracy' is a set of 13 root nameservers. These are computers that manage the flow of bits around the world. (Or "across the world," if you're not a believer in the "round-Earth" theory.)

Those nameservers are controlled by an organization known as ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). And ICANN is controlled by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

ICANN is the organization that decides, among other things, what top-level domains are allowed -- a top-level domain being .com, .org, .uk, etc. The nameservers it controls maintain those, so when you type in "

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", your computer's message ("Send me that Web page") goes to the right place.

Yes, it's more complicated than that. But I covered the complexities of the workings of the Net in an earlier column.

What's important is that _he who controls the root nameservers controls the traffic on the Internet._ And right now that's the government of the U.S. of A. (Cue patriotic music.)

But ICANN is a private organization, and it's supervision by the DoC is based on a memorandum of understanding that was written in 1997, when "the President directed the Secretary of Commerce to privatize the management of the domain name system (DNS) in a manner that increases competition and facilitates international participation in its management."

ICANN has a worldwide membership -- in fact, its president and CEO is an Aussie named Paul Twomey. The U.S. government was supposed to give up control in 2006, when it would be up to the world at large to decide how ICANN would fit into the scheme of things.

Most likely it would then be run by the International Telecommunications Union, a body that's sorta kinda part of the U.N., but has actually been around since 1865 in one form or another. Among other things, it established the ground rules for linking telegraph systems in the late 1800s.

But that's neither here nor there.

That's because this is the land of doing as you please, and President Bush decided that he pleased not to give up control of the Net.

Obviously Bush didn't say it that way. As usual these days, Bush claims it was done in the name of "security" -- the same reason, for example, the FBI needs access to your library records.

"The United States Government intends to preserve the security and stability of the Internet's Domain Name and Addressing System," went a statement from Michael Gallagher, assistant secretary at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. "The United States will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.")

Translation: We don't trust other people to run the Internet, and since we made it in the first place, tough noogies.

Luckily for us, since 9-11 we've enjoyed the goodwill of the rest of the world. Most people and most governments trust us and like us, so this probably won't be a big deal. Everyone knows that America has the whole world's best interests at heart.

Of course, there are a few grumblegutses out there who, for reasons I don't understand (because the mass media doesn't really tell us) don't completely trust us.

What they say is that this unilateral decision by Bush could split the Internet -- it could literally cause the rest of the world to set up its own routing system because, like us, they want to have control over their own data infrastructure.

That would mean that representatives of U.S. Internet, the European Internet, and potentially the Asian, African, and South American internets would have to reach some sort of connectivity agreement to allow the bits to flow.

It might also allow any country to 'lock out' data from any other country. Not that we would do that, what with the U.S. being so committed to a free and open society, but it could happen in places that don't value freedom as much as we do.

Of course, this is all speculative. The Internet is, in fact, fractured already -- that "network of networks" thing. So connecting new networks to the existing one is fairly simple, especially if that new network was originally part of the Internet in the first place.

In other words, if the Internet splits because of the president's decision, connecting the two (or three, or more) remaining parts will be fairly straightforward, at least from a technical viewpoint.

After all, new devices and technologies using the "language" of the Net -- Internet Protocol, or IP - are popping up all the time. Voice over IP, video over IP, IP-enabled phones and PDAs and what have you. Connecting two or more entire Internets will be a piece of cake.

The issues, instead, will be political ones, and how could that be bad?


Andrew Kantor is a technology writer, pundit, and know-it-all who covers technology for the Roanoke Times. He's also a former editor for PC Magazine and Internet World. Read more of his work at kantor.com. His column appears Fridays on USATODAY.com.

Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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