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The cold war on computers


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Illustration by Patricia Tompkins
By Kara Karlson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
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The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was saved from overthrow by a compromise at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis Nov. 16 to Nov. 18.

ICANN is a California-based nonprofit organization set up by the U.S. Department of Commerce in the late 1990s to manage a master list of registered domain names and oversee disputes. Every time a user wants to purchase a domain name it goes through ICANN to ensure two people do not lease rights to the same name.

The summit was originally convened to discuss how to bridge the gap between the Internet "haves" and "have-nots." It turned into a power grab by some of the world's most repressive regimes (read: China, Cuba, Iran).

Allegedly one of the primary problems perpetuating this "digital divide" is that languages with different character sets (like Chinese and Arabic) are not currently supported through ICANN. Despite this "fault," terrorists use the Internet like professionals, without the need for Arabic characters to set up domain names.

While ICANN has been trying to address the problem of international domain names for the past few years, the problems facing the system will not magically disappear with a change of power from the U.S. to anywhere-but-the-U.S. because of the technological complexities involved.

The first question that the summit should have asked was, if not here, where?

Because the EU backs the proposal to "internationalize" ICANN, perhaps Germany could act as Internet headquarters. But German courts recently ruled that a Web site that has links to another, independent defamatory Web site can be sued. Search engines like Google would be out of business or would have to prepare to battle constant defamation suits.

Maybe China - a country that blocks any Web sites with the word "democracy" in it - would be appropriate. In addition to the prior restraint the Chinese government actively practices, the government also monitors the sites its citizens visit like the E-Gestapo, and follow up with interrogations.

Photo
Kara Karlson
columnist

The Internet has thrived because the U.S. government, after the Department of Defense spearheaded its initial development, has made little effort to interfere with the "governance" of the Internet.

The idea of trying to govern the Internet is not only impractical, but also contrary to the free flow of information, goods and services that the Internet represents to those same repressed people living under oppressive regimes that the World Summit is supposed to be defending.

ICANN is based in the U.S., but it has many "at large" offices internationally in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. Twelve of their 22 board members come from outside the U.S.: Senegal, Chile, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Bulgaria, Mexico, China, Kenya, Malaysia and Australia.

The truth is that no matter what motives the dictators offer up as reasons for wanting to "internationalize" ICANN, it is a thirst for power, and an attempt to prevent the citizens of their countries from accessing anything that would paint tyranny in a bad light that truly drives them.

"We developed it, and we're doing a good job handling it. The Internet should stay here," said Nathan Warner, an advanced technical specialist for godaddy.com, the world's largest Internet registrar that happens to be based in the U.S.

Right now ICANN is in the hands of the world's Internet experts: Vinton G. Cerf, one of the architects of the Internet; Roberto Gaetano, one of the developers of the original Domain Name Supporting Organization; Thomas Niles, an international business diplomat for the U.S. Foreign Service for 36 years; and Hualin Qian, who brought the Internet to China for the first time in 1989.

With the expertise ICANN has exercised over the Internet, it has become 100 times bigger than it started, and it continues to grow despite the summit's continuing attacks on its autonomy.

In exchange for the right of retaining control of a well-managed system, the ambassadors for the Bush administration have agreed to the creation of an "Internet Governance Forum" that will serve as an arena to discuss how bureaucracy can hijack a great idea.

The stated aim of the World Summit is to get investment and infrastructure to developing nations so they too can be part of the information age. The best way to achieve these ends is to maintain the cheap, quick and reliable system we currently have, not bog it down between the bureaucrats and the scandals of the United Nations.


Kara Karlson is a journalism senior. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.



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