ICANN: the Secret Government of the Internet?
By Steven Hill
As our increasingly globalized world tiptoes towards experiments in
global governance, the World Trade Organization is not the only newborn
institution raising concern. In particular, commercial interests are
beginning to pull at the hem of Internet governance, with the potential of
corralling the decentralized international online network.
How many people have ever heard of ICANN, The Internet Corporation for
Assigned Names and Numbers? Depending on whose description you read, ICANN
is either an innocuous non-profit with a narrow technical mandate, or the
first step in corralling the Internet for commercial and other purposes.
Here are a few facts: ICANN is a nonprofit corporation that was chartered
by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce in November 1999 to oversee a select set of
Internet technical management functions previously managed by the U.S.
Government. These functions include fostering competition in the domain name
registration market (i.e. the selling of .COM, .NET and .ORG suffixes) and
settling disputes over "cyber squatting" (the intentional buying
of domain names like McDonalds.com for later re-sale at exorbitant prices to
That all sounds fairly bureaucratic and benign, but there's more to the
picture than first meets the eye. And it's really got some watchdogs like
the Center for Democracy and Technology, Common Cause and the Markle
Foundation worked up.
To understand the suspicion it's necessary to understand a bit about what
is called the "root server", and the critical role ICANN plays in
overseeing it. Servers are high-powered computers that function as the
crossroads of the Internet, kind of like the neurons of our central nervous
system, through which all email messages and requests to view Web pages get
Whomever controls the "root" server can decide which other
servers all Internet users worldwide will be directed to when they try to
view any Web site address in the .COM, .NET and .ORG domains. Controllers of
the root server can say: "From now on, we will use the data in server X
as the authoritative list of .COM names and addresses, but only so long as
the operator of that server complies with the following conditions."
Those conditions being things like requiring that all domain server
operators pay them a certain fee, or provide them with particular kinds of
information about the people to whom they have handed out specific names and
addresses, or only allow transmission of files in a specified format. Or
things as yet undreamed of.
Since ICANN controls the root server, it is technically feasible for this
nearly anonymous organization to exercise a kind of life-or-death power over
the global network, because presence in (or absence from) this chain of
interlocking servers and databases is a matter of cyberspace life or death.
If your domain name and Web address cannot be found on the root server or
its mirror servers, you simply do not exist -- at least, not on the
Internet. Eliminate the entry for xyz.com from the .COM domain server and
xyz.com vanishes entirely from cyberspace. Designate as the new .COM domain
server a machine that does not have an entry for xyz.com in its database,
and you have imposed the electronic equivalent of the death penalty on
For people like Zoe Baird, president of the Markle Foundation, and Jerry
Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, this
raises important policy questions around issues of privacy, sovereignty and
cyber-property that have the potential to go far beyond ICANN's narrow
technical mandate. Take the following test, and see how you would resolve
* One anti-abortion Web site listed the names of doctors performing
abortions and crossed them off as they were assassinated. Another Web site
published the names of alleged British intelligence agents and put their
lives and, potentially, British national security, at risk. ICANN has the
power to wipe out these Web sites, should it do so?
* Or how about a Web site of anonymous Chinese dissidents, broadcasting
their message to the world and to their compatriots? How should ICANN
balance anonymity on the Web - a key element of political freedom - with the
right to know who is behind a domain name?
* There's a Web site called MartinLutherKing.org, and guess what? The
authors of that Web site and the owners of that domain name specialize in
slandering the slain civil rights leader. Is that free speech, or is that a
violation of the "trademark," not to mention the legacy, of Martin
* Should Internet users under the jurisdiction of the Palestine Authority
be eligible for an email address ending with .pl, just as users in the
United Kingdom have email addresses ending with .uk? How about the Kurds?
How about the Basques? Who should decide?
* Should ICANN have acted in the case of B92, the courageous and
respected independent radio station in Belgrade that had its online identity
- b92.net - taken over and used by Slobodan Milosevic?
As Markle's Zoe Baird has pointed out, in many instances acting or not
acting will have equal implications. ICANN must decide what falls within
their scope of jurisdiction.
Bizarre as it may seem for a decentralized global network that supposedly
"exists nowhere and everywhere," the root server and the various
domain servers to which it points constitute the very heart of the Internet.
The root server is the Archimedean point on which this vast global network
balances. After all the talk over the past few years about how difficult it
will be to regulate the Internet, the domain name system looks like the one
place where Internet policy can be enforced.
Anyone interested in controlling the rules under which activities on the
Internet take place -- and many commercial interests, who now realize the
huge economic stakes in the Internet, and many governments too, find that
they are indeed quite interested -- is likely to find the existence of a
single controlling point awfully tempting for imposing its will. Indeed,
according to the New York Times, ICANN's policy-making process so far has
been dominated largely by technical and commercial interests.
Not surprisingly, watchdog groups have proposed that, unlike the
secretive World Trade Organization, ICANN's international board of directors
should be publicly elected, and subject to public meetings and disclosure.
The Markle Foundation has initiated an Internet Governance Project that will
go toward making ICANN more open and accountable. This project funded a
thorough study by Common Cause and the Center for Democracy and Technology
of ICANN which resulted in a report criticizing many aspects of ICANN's
process. At its recent March meeting in Cairo, ICANN accepted some of these
criticisms, agreeing to direct elections for half of its board members. But
crucial details still remain to be worked out. Some within ICANN are
embracing this call for elected representation and accountability, while
others are resisting.
Not too many people have even heard about this ICANN business, and that's
just fine with certain elements within ICANN. In fact, that's the way they
want it. Don't let it stay that way. To find out more information, visit the
Web sites of the Center for Democracy and Technology (www.cdt.org/dns) or
ICANN Watch (www.icannwatch.org). Any Internet user can become a member of
ICANN for free and vote in a future election by registering at
www.icann.org. Also, ICANN has created an Internet forum where people can
post their opinions at www.icann.org/feedback.html, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let them know what you think, and spread the word. Someday we may look
back and realize that this moment was the Internet's "1776,"
critical in deciding who got to control this new form of global
[Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting
and Democracy. He is the co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press
1999). For more information about the work of the Center for Voting and
Democracy, see www.fairvote.org, write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA