If there’s one essential quality of the world-wide web it's that it is, well, world-wide. But recent moves by the body that governs the net may be opening the door to individual webs, starting with countries like China and Russia. Tim Wu, professor of internet and law, explains the implications of a many-webbed world.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Internet is always evolving, but if there’s one constant we can rely on, it’s that the World Wide Web is world-wide. It is, after all, an inherently global phenomenon. And while we may not look at Chinese sites or outbid Laotians on eBay, we'd like to think we could if we wanted to.
But now the interconnectivity of the Net may be at risk. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is the group that controls the Internet, a U.S. nonprofit organization under contract to the Department of Commerce.
ICANN has recently succumbed to pressure from China and Russia to allow the creation of domain names using non-Latin alphabets, like Chinese and Cyrillic. And, according to Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, that could mark the beginning of the end of the Web as we know it. Tim, welcome back to the show. TIM WU: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you explain what ICANN does and how it exercises control over the Net? TIM WU: It’s sort of like the authority that gives out medallions for New York taxicabs. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. TIM WU: That is, if you want to be on the Internet you need a number and you need a name if anyone wants to find you. And if you want a number or a name, at some level ICANN is in charge of processing those numbers and names. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It has an interesting relationship with the U.S. government. TIM WU: The United States can potentially veto what it does. It’s never tried that exactly, but the United States also has physical possession of the one root computer for the Internet, which is somewhere here in Virginia. And it potentially could use its physical power over the root to try and do something. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is the root? TIM WU: It is the one computer that stores the domain names that work on the Internet – dot-com and dot-net, dot-org. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And no one else has got it? TIM WU: No one else has got it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it no wonder that the U.N.-sponsored Internet Governance Forum concluded recently that developing countries were feeling alienated because they felt their interests weren't being recognized by ICANN? I mean, is it shaping up as a developed world versus developing world issue? TIM WU: It is already an issue between the developing and the developed world. There’ve been some arguments that the United States has rigorously enforced the rights of trademark owners, and trademark owners tend to be corporations, rich American corporations. So that’s one area where maybe there is a concern.
There’s also a sense that it’s unresponsive, it’s elitist, it’s a group of American scientists and specialists and lawyers who basically run the show more or less behind closed doors. They can't really point to a lot of results, but they feel it’s like a little club and they don't like that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the alternative to ICANN administration of the Internet? TIM WU: There’re two groups that are trying to challenge it. The first are the groups that are trying to set up alternative structure. They're sort of more like Internet radicals that want to have their own domain name structure.
The more sort of serious, maybe pernicious, challenge is from Russia and China, both of which have made waves and have started to set up their own Internets, based on their language systems, Chinese and Cyrillic. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what would the Internet world look like then if China and Russia were to set up their own Internet root systems? TIM WU: It would be, in a word, “balkanized.” It would be an Internet in name only and, in practice, a series of national networks where it’s not easy to reach other ones. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, recently ICANN has been allowing non-Latin letters in domain names. It was seen as a way to placate China. TIM WU: Right. So this year ICANN has decided for the first time to start allowing non-Latin domain name development. It’s controversial. There’re a lot of security concerns and there’s also just concerns that it’s going to split the Internet up. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This argument that ICANN is having with Russia and China, it seems as if it’s foreign policy playing out in cyberspace. We saw cyber-attacks against Estonia last year. It was suspected they were directed from Russia. Do you think that the Internet is becoming a new field for foreign policy power plays? TIM WU: Yes. I just came from a Defense Department meeting where we were talking about cyber-deterrents and exactly these set of issues. And absolutely, you know, there is a sort of new arena for tensions between nations, and it is the Internet. Whether it’s intellectual property, domain name issues, pornography or terrorism, you know, a lot of these issues are turning into Internet foreign policy. And so, this is just a small example of a larger phenomenon. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How likely do you think it is that the Internet will ultimately split apart into many, many different pieces? TIM WU: I'd say if we get to a point where the Chinese Internet only recognizes Chinese and you can't even go to American websites, that is really the death of the Internet. That is no longer a network of networks, which is what the Internet was.
And the localization of domain names is an important step in that direction towards an Internet that is an America-only Internet, a China-only Internet and a Russia-only Internet where you can't even get out of those Internets. We're not there yet, but this is a step in that direction.
Governments have to take an active role in trying to protect an interconnected Internet. ICANN may have no choice to make this concession on language, and it’s hard to say English should be the universal language without sounding like a neo-colonialist.
But we have to make sure that this one step doesn't turn into a true balkanization, because I think that would destroy the initial promise of sort of an Esperanto of the world, and would be bad for all of us. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim, thanks very much. TIM WU: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim Wu is a technology and law professor at Columbia University and coauthor of Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World.