Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace

Becky Hogge
15 November 2005

One of the biggest draws of the information technology scene is that, unlike nearly any other sector of civic life, it does not tend to attract argumentative people in the twilight of their careers debating aimlessly in closed rooms without having the first notion of what they're talking about, just because they've come to feel very lonely when not accompanied by the sound of their own voice. If technology has one central piece of lore, it is “find it, fix it”. But times they are a-changing. Take a ringside seat at WSIS round two, starting this week, and you can say you were there when the tides turned.

Instead of getting down to the real business of pondering why, if this info-juice is so wonderful and free and everything, whilst I'm timestamping my political satire .mp3 downloads on the bus, there's a whole village in east Africa sharing one mobile phone, at the UN's World Summit for the Information Society in Tunis on 16-18 November we'll be asking: who controls the net? That's right, it looks like after all this time – why, we nearly had Mr Murdoch in a sweat back there – the world wide web was something that could be controlled after all.

Also by Becky Hogge, managing editor of openDemocracy:

“Patents for profit: dystopian visions of the new economy” (March 2005)

“Democracy and dissent at the World Intellectual Property Organisation” (April 2005)

“The great firewall of China” (May 2005)

“Mozilla’s ‘magic pixie dust’” (with Hamza Khan-Cheema, September 2005)

“Open source nation” (interview with Geoff Mulgan, September 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The question being put to the floor is, should the US government cede its control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) to the UN? To most of global civil society, the answer seems clear. Of course the internet, a global phenomenon, should be controlled by a global organisation, no matter what we might think of the UN right now. Why leave it up to the Americans? What have they done for world peace recently?

But to every point comes a counterpoint. “Will the internet become the Unternet? ” screeched Tech Central Station last month. The headline (which, however misguided, possesses a beauty to make your average sub weep) captures perfectly American fears that its homegrown, freedom-delivering invention will become bogged down in geopolitical grey goo the moment it cedes control to the UN.

The minute you scrutinse what “control” Icann currently exerts over the net, both these arguments start to look a little premature. Because the holy grail of internet governance about to be debated at WSIS is a little thing called the root zone file – the system which controls the distribution of top-level domains (like .com, .org and .net) that make up the majority of the World Wide Web. Icann maintains the root zone file by virtue of a very tight, exclusive contract with the United States department of commerce. And the reason the DoC exerts control over the root zone file is because it bought it from a geek called Jon seven years ago.

As the Internet Governance Project so rightly point out in their recent report The political oversight of ICANN (no pun intended), this knotty arrangement with Jon (now deceased, who's company, VeriSign, currently owns the largest domain-name registry business in the world) means that wresting control of the root zone file from the US commerce department would most likely involve a Congressional debate. US law and technology do not happy bedfellows make (the US Supreme Court recently outlawed the photocopier) and the prospect of a nationally-lobbied US Congress having ultimate say in the future of the root zone file is almost as haunting as that of a conglomerate of techophobe heads of state working out what to do with it.

A debate about the governance of Icann is long overdue. But what that debate is not about is freedom of speech, human rights, spam, or any other of the motley crew of concerns that have been brought to the negotiating table at WSIS. Icann may be an opaque and cumbersome organisation, but the root zone file is not the internet. George W Bush cannot delete it in a fit of neo-conservative pique.

True, religious lobbying of the DoC did result in severe delays in the assignment of a dedicated top-level domain name for pornographic material, .xxx. Further, accusations have been levelled at Icann that (rather unsurprisingly) it favours US business interests and has been slow to move on multilingual top-level domains.

Also in openDemocracy on democracy and cyberspace:

Esther Dyson, “Defending ICANN – an interview” (August 2002)

Solana Larsen, “The WSIS: whose freedom, whose information?” (December 2003)

James Cowling, “The internet’s future in an aircraft hangar” (December 2003)

Bill Thompson, “Dump the World wide Web!” (December 2004)

But Icann is not watching you, nor is it scanning your correspondence for keywords like democracy. Icann is not partitioning off the bit of the web that tells you the meaning of life, or tomorrow's outcome at the horse races. Just as American liberals are wrong when they opine that ceding “control of the internet” to an international body would allow repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and China to cripple the net overnight, so civil society is misguided when it looks to UN “control of the internet” to bridge the digital divide (and in this respect it might well like to look at the UN-sponsored International Telecommunication Union’s record on competitive internet service provision in the developing world)

Throughout its short history, Icann has tried to find ways to “control” the web beyond the assignment of top-level domains, and Icann has failed. Now it's the UN's turn to fail. “Strong feelings about protecting the internet are to be expected” wrote Kofi Annan in a tempered Washington Post editorial comment (“The U.N. isn’t a threat to the net”, 5 November 2005), his attempt at calming everyone down. But feelings, no matter how passionately felt and how eloquently debated in Tunis, will not change the internet.

Whether we rent our space in the virtual world from a US-controlled Icann or a UN-controlled Icann, in the end we, the users of the internet, are the ones in control. And the World Summit on the Information Society would better spend its time this week working out how to get the next 5 billion users onto the information superhighway, rather than wasting our time erecting the kind of top-down policy roadblocks that the “find it, fix it” web has categorically demonstrated it can easily route around.

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