BROOKE GLADSTONE: Many marked the Web’s 25th anniversary this month, celebrations occasioned by the anniversary of a paper written by Web founding father, Tim Berners-Lee, while a Fellow at the European Particle Physics Lab, CERN. His paper, snappily titled, “Information Management: A Proposal” imagined an internet-based system whereby scientists working around the world could share data and results. Back in 1989, Berners-Lee already had a clear vision of what the Web should be, quote, “The system must allow any sort of information to be entered. Another person must be able to find the information, sometimes without knowing what he's looking for.” He described the importance of links, the value of connecting previously unconnected databases and allowing anyone access to the system, from anywhere - in other words, everything we take for granted.
BOB GARFIELD: If Berners-Lee’s paper is elegant, the actual business of running the Web seems numbingly dull, all schematics and acronyms. But last week, this arcane work actually grabbed the headlines when the United States agreed to surrender its last bit of control over the governance of the Web.
You might think of the Web is being, well, altogether worldwide, but having bankrolled its early development, the US Department of Commerce has retained a vestigial link to its operation and regulation. Increasingly, and especially in the wake of NSA revelations, America's role has engendered suspicion. And so, last week, the government decided to cut its ties with the California-based non-profit called ICANN that makes the Web work by safeguarding the domain name system, or DNS. DNS ensures that what you type in the address bar gets you to the location you're looking for.
But when the US decided to step away from its supervisory role of ICANN, critics on the political right cried foul. Here’s Fox News host and former presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee.
MIKE HUCKABEE: People want to use our ideas, fine. We’ll, we’ll share them. But we’re gonna own ‘em because if we develop it, then it’s ours. And if you, you know, want to accept that, fine. If you don’t, then develop your own internet and spend the resources to do it!
BOB GARFIELD: Brendan Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek. Brendan, welcome to the show.
BRENDAN GREELEY: Thanks for talking about internet governance. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Yeah, what were the odds? DNS, Domain Name Registry, explain, please.
BRENDAN GREELEY: All right, so when you type in a URL into your web browser, BusinessWeek.com, say, your computer consults a master list that says this URL, connect with the following servers. If you're in Mumbai or if you're in New York City, you get the same servers. It is what makes the Web universal.
It’s just a piece of plumbing that is incredibly important, so important that the first man who was in charge of this earned the nickname “God.”
God died, unfortunately, in 1998, and around the same time he handed over control of DNS to an organization called ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It’s a non-profit. It’s operated out of California.
Now, ICANN is sort of an impenetrable organization. It’s very difficult to figure out exactly how it works. No single company, no single country, no groups of countries are in charge of it. In theory, the board reflects decisions that are made through consultation with corporations and states and civil society actors.
BOB GARFIELD: So they have a lot of constituencies and, ‘til now, they’ve kept those constituencies pretty happy, right? I’m not aware of a whole bunch of complaints about how URLs resolve online, and –
BRENDAN GREELEY: Bob, that is because you don’t spend a lot of time watching internet governance.
They have kept everybody sort of equally dissatisfied. Certain countries don’t want certain URLs to appear.
BOB GARFIELD: So if you’re China, for example, and you don't want traffic in ideas concerning a independent Tibet you don't want to see independentTibet.com as a URL.
BRENDAN GREELEY: Precisely. The basic protections that have been so important for the internet, the assumption of free speech, that you have a right to register a new domain name, that’s been protected, and that was part of the goal of the original contract with ICANN.
The concern has always been that if there isn't at least a basic contract with the US stating what the goals of the Domain Name System should be, that ICANN will eventually start to stray from those goals.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, before we get to that though, Brendan, why would the government cede any authority that it retains on the internet?
BRENDAN GREELEY: No country cedes sovereignty when it doesn’t have to. The problem with the internet is that you have to get everybody to agree to do the same thing. In the last decade, it has become harder and harder to get everybody to agree to do the same thing, if that same thing is ultimately owned by the United States. Even if the contracts of commerce didn’t have anything to do with the day-to-day workings of ICANN, the fact that the US was in control of this ultimately legally made it harder to negotiate with other countries. It is very likely that it was accelerated by last year’s revelations about NSA spying.
BOB GARFIELD: The notion of the US government doing anything that even remotely looks like surrendering sovereignty, however, is bound to stir up anxiety, especially on the political right, particularly ceding authority to some sort of murky global authority. [LAUGHS]
BRENDAN GREELEY: You have heard several people on the right say something like ceding sovereignty unilaterally is like giving up the Panama Canal. I think there is a genuine concern that ICANN, on its own, does not have the institutional strength to withstand countries like China and Russia. I think that's legitimate.
The problem is if you’re the US, you have to ask yourself a question: Do you want to be sovereignly awesome, or do you want to be effective? The reason they let go of the contract is because it became clear that holding onto this right was no longer doing them any good in international negotiations. US control of ICANN through commerce had become a liability in getting the US what it wanted out of ICANN.
BOB GARFIELD: And it’s dealing with rival states, notably China and Russia, Iran, that have very different notions of what constitutes basic human rights –
BRENDAN GREELEY: Yeah –
BOB GARFIELD: - like free speech. Should we fear that countries that heavily censor the internet will try to exert control over ICANN in the absence of US government authority?
BRENDAN GREELEY: I think we should fear that. There’s been a movement among several countries, China and Russia prominent among them, to take the authority that ICANN had through commerce and move it to the UN, through a body called the International Telecommunications Union. What this would mean is it would replace the approach that ICANN has had, which is everything takes forever because you’ve got to get civil society actors on board, you’ve got to get corporations on board, you have to get a consensus over a number of countries, replace the stakeholder approach with the UN approach, which is you got a bunch of countries. Countries vote their interests.
So the fear is that over time ICANN will become something more UN-like. I think the, the worst-case outcome would be that over the long term, ICANN becomes an organization where you have one state, one vote.
BOB GARFIELD: Nine-hundred pound superpower gorillas taking disproportionate control of the internet, that’s - that's one nightmare scenario. Another is a kind of repeat of the 60s and the nonaligned movement, where a lot of different countries band together to use the internet as a way to aggregate political strength. Is that a risk under the new governance infrastructure, compared to the status quo?
BRENDAN GREELEY: So far, ICANN has been able to prevent that. Long term, I think the risk is a slight eroding of this process, where everybody agrees and countries don't get their own way. One way that we've already seen this, for example, has been the introduction of internationalized domain names, which allow you to register a domain name in Mandarin or in Hindi or in Cyrillic characters. These are incredibly important because there’s a limited number of people, in any country, that speak English and can read websites in Latin characters. Once you expand the character base, then you expand the readership.
So China is hyper-focused on making sure that it has control over domain names that are produced in Mandarin, for example. In order to do that, you have to go through a government which means that in this decision the principle of sovereignty was the most important one, So it's a very real risk, but the risk is not that a single country or a group of countries takes over the internet. The risk is that they take their internet and they go home.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess to end this, Brendan, earlier we discussed the idea that the original arbiter of what the rules of the internet would be, he was nicknamed God. It was a monotheistic system. [LAUGHS] Have we now gone to online polytheism? Is that our future?
BRENDAN GREELEY: I think the best hope for a single internet is that the internet continues to follow its one true religion, which is trade - that corporations continue to recognize that their best interest lies in selling to as many people, in as many different places as possible. Trust in greed I think is the best hope we have.
BOB GARFIELD: You are so – BusinessWeek.
BRENDAN GREELEY: [LAUGHS] Money talks and, hopefully, it will continue to.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Brendan, thank you so much.
BRENDAN GREELEY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Brendan Greeley is a staff writer at Bloomberg Businessweek.