At the moment, the United States sets the rules for the Internet, through the non-governmental Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Whether the U.S. will retain its hegemony, however, is uncertain; it's up for debate next month at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis. Kenneth Neil Cukier outlined the debate for Foreign Affairs, and joins Brooke to discuss what's at stake.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So far, America's hegemony over the global Internet has been a matter of course and tradition, governing through the non-governmental Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. But just because it's always been that way doesn't mean it always will. Next month, the World Summit on the Information Society meets in Tunis. Think of it as high noon in cyberspace, the showdown between nations who found themselves standing eyeball-to-eyeball back at the first summit in Geneva of 2003. Kenneth Neil Cukier outlined the issues for Foreign Affairs Magazine, and he joins us now from London. Kenneth, welcome to OTM.
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we generally think of the Internet as a bottom-up, lawless world where what happens, happens because the people using the Internet make it happen. So what exactly is Internet governance in this context?
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: Well, Internet governance refers to the coordination of certain technical issues, the infrastructure by which the Internet works. Now, there's four areas, but one in particular is the domain name system. The domains, such as ibm.com or harvard.edu, someone has to run that last extension, the suffix, the .edu or the .com. For other countries, it's .fr for France or .cn for China. But some institution has to determine who is the appropriate entity to manage that. Is it the government of China that runs .cn or is it someone else?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now we have ICANN, which is administering the domain system since 1998. It was deliberately set up as a non-governmental group. But it's obviously controlled by the United States.
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: Well, to say that it's controlled by the United States means to say that it's under the authority of the United States. That's a little bit different. The reason why is because although ICANN is managed and overseen by the Department of Commerce, the Department of Commerce, like the U.S. in many areas, takes a very hands-off approach. It allows for an industry-led ethos in terms of the policy development. Other countries don't share that same tradition. So when the U.S. manages the system, you can think of it as the U.S. taking control of it to see that industry leads and to see that there's a hands-off governmental approach. That's why the U.S. is retaining control.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've called it an experiment, a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder approach towards managing a global resource on a non-governmental basis. But do you think it's been a successful experiment?
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: It has and it hasn't. There has been lots of problems with ICANN. It's been documented for a while. They have processes that are a little bit erratic and bad decisions get made frequently. On the other hand, at least it's been better than all the alternatives. If we were to have this huge international bureaucracy creating ICANN, trying to set technology policy, we're certain of one thing. The Internet won't grow as quickly and as unencumbered as it has been.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This summer American officials, you say, preemptively issued a document that you described as a "Monroe Doctrine for our time." What do you mean?
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: Well, the Monroe Doctrine gave European powers a warning: "Stay away from our hemisphere. It's our sphere of influence." That is to say that this was our domain, and we should have a presumptive privilege on how it would be developed. Likewise, for the Internet, this is the same sort of signal. It's telling other governments: “Stay away because right now we run it and we are uneasy-“
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [CHUCKLES]
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: “-with having you get involved in that management.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And an editorial in the New York Times last weekend basically said, “America started the Internet and goldurn it, we should keep running it!” But some nations have problems with that.
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: Yeah. It's not a sustainable position. Now, of course, in the short term and the medium term, it's the best position to have because it's going to lead to greater freedoms, or at least it's going to preserve the freedoms and the values of the Internet that we have today. But as the Internet becomes more and more part of the fabric of everyday life and more governments have a claim to wanting to have a say in how it develops, there needs to be some sort of a mechanism to allow that control to happen, to be shared among the international community. Frankly, for the moment, no one's come up with a suitable system to do that. And for that reason, we're at this impasse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have countries like Brazil, France, China and Iran standing on one side. You have U.S. standing on the other. What's going to happen at that showdown in Tunis?
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: What we're going to see in Tunis is a lot of saber-rattling. Then what we'll probably see is a compromise. And the compromise will probably take the form of a forum in which the governments around the world, with the U.S. in support, will organize just a talking shop. It won't have any powers, but it'll be a place where all governments can get together to discuss these issues more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the various opponents in this battle will fire off their guns, but you don't expect anybody to get hit.
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: For the moment, there's not much other countries can do. They must basically be a part of today's Internet or they actually cut off their nose to spite their face. Over time what they could do is they could unify themselves into a block and try to create a parallel system, at least in terms of the naming structure of the Internet, and therefore wean themselves away from the U.S.'s ICANN Internet and with the names that ICANN have – has approved. And that would actually be a difficult thing for the technology industry. If you have a parallel standard, it creates extra costs for people and it also might not interoperate perfectly. So you want to avoid that at all costs. Just the threat of that represents more than just saber-rattling. It represents a threat by other countries that America wants to avoid. That's the nature of the "high noon."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you feel a certain nostalgia for the days before ICANN, before 1998?
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: Absolutely. In many ways, the days before 1998, when the Internet was just a smaller little haven of academics and engineers, the Internet was a much better Internet, and better in the sense that decisions could be made very quickly and they could be made for the right reasons, just technical reasons that were the best reasons, not for other reasons like vested interests and economic reasons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Kenneth, thank you very much.
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER: Yeah. My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kenneth Neil Cukier writes for The Economist. His piece: "Who Will Control the Internet?" appears in the November/December edition of Foreign Affairs magazine.