It really is extraordinary how a government’s philosophy can permeate a society.
I have been following and writing about Internet governance for I don’t know how long but most importantly I was in Luxembourg 12 months ago when ICANN met and attempted to understand what on earth four new principles produced by the United States government a week earlier actually meant.
Here then is a brief history of the fall-out from that announcement and of the mad, bad world that the Internet has been forced to live through since then – with particular emphasis on the disgraceful corruption of journalism in what has always been a beacon of free speech and freedom in the world – the United States of America.
The UN report advising how the Internet should be co-ordinated was due out at the end of the Luxembourg meeting but the USG had got hold of an advance copy and quickly produced four “principles” which were then slipped into the next speech Commerce assistant secretary Michael Gallagher was giving. As it turned out, that was the Wireless Communications Association International’s annual meeting at the Marriot Wardman Park Hotel in Washington DC.
Security and stability
The first principle has proved to be the most controversial: “The United States Government intends to preserve the security and stability of the Internet’s Domain Name and Addressing System (DNS). Given the Internet’s importance to the world’s economy, it is essential that the underlying DNS of the Internet remain stable and secure. As such, the United States is committed to taking no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.”
Despite repeated requests, the US government refused to clarify what it actually meant by this at the time. It was clear however that it was playing an oft-used trump card by connecting Net governance to the issue of “security”. It mentioned only Internet security but, as was intended, it made an immediate connection to the wider issue of national security. Since the terrorist attacks in September 2001, to ally anything with security is to guarantee strong and unassailable support from the US public.
US officials then expertly used this unquestioning patriotism to paint a domestic picture of what may happen if anyone but the United States remain in charge of the Internet’s DNS and root zone file. The compliant US media went along with the conceit that moving Net governance away from the USG would automatically mean the United Nations being in control or, even worse, the Chinese. US senators saw a political opportunity and started making noises about the importance of keeping control of the Internet in the US.
The good old days
This whole approach came as something of a shock to the Internet community who had always seen the US government as an extraordinarily helpful and benign influence over the Internet. It was, after all, the US government that had the foresight to push the TCP/IP model despite international consensus pointing to the far more restrictive OSI model. And it was the USG that created ICANN in order to isolate the Internet from governmental and commercial control. It had even stated that it would write itself out of the equation as soon as possible. All that changed when the principles arrived.
The result was that the World Summit on the Information Society became a one-issue process. In October at a pre-Summit meeting in Geneva, the issue of US control became a heated topic of debate. Particularly bizarre from my perspective as a journalist in the room were the US press reports about what was happening and what the issues were. None of the journalists that wrote the reports were actually present at the meeting, with the result that reports bore almost no relation to the reality of the situation.
As one US academic paper [pdf] would later conclude, the fearsome outside influence led to the United States rejecting an EU proposal which in many respects was probably the best model of Internet governance that we may ever see.
The skills of the American team, and its head Ambassador David Gross saw the issue follow onto the Tunis Summit itself where two days of extra sessions were held before the Summit itself in order to reach agreement. Again, sat in the boiling Kram conference centre, it was incredible to note how inaccurate the reports from the US media were regarding the discussions. Again, almost none of the journalists were present.
In the end, the UK/EU stepped away from its position when the issue became of such domestic importance that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally sent a letter to UK foreign secretary Jack Straw warning the EU off. And so the US retained its role, much to many people’s clear irritation.
It is possible that the USG felt that would be the end of the matter but, just as everyone had feared, once the Bush Administration had crossed the invisible line and intervened in the issue of Internet governance, there was no going back. With typical bluster, the administration swept aside advice and warnings and decided to do what it wanted.
When VeriSign, a US company with very strong political links, managed to push through two contracts to extend its control of both the .net and, crucially, the .com registries, even US interests cried foul. VeriSign had simply pressed the same “security and stability” buttons that guaranteed a hotlink to the White House and a well-travelled route to high-level political pressure, this time on the DoC and ICANN.
When it was revealed that the administration had then personally intervened to override ICANN and prevent the introduction of the .xxx top-level domain, all the fears about what could go wrong if just one government was allowed to be in charge appeared to be fully justified. With the path already carved out, it was inevitable that there would be more interventions.
To its credit, someone in the Department of Commerce recognised that the system that had been so carefully built up the US government since the 1970s was in danger of falling apart because of ill-conceived ideas of national patriotism and an over-zealous administration. The NTIA made noises about putting the IANA contract (covering the root zone file) up for tender. And then it announced a consultation of what to do over ICANN’s contract when it ran out at the end of September.
When the details of that consultation appeared, many were surprised: the questions were good and dug quite deeply. The result of what appeared to be a level of seriousness from the NTIA resulted in hundreds of responses. What the NTIA probably wasn’t aware of however was how strong feeling both within and outside the United States was regarding the importance of pulling control away from one government. Almost two-thirds of responses that were relevant to the inquiry urged the USG to transition its role to an international body.
Naturally, I wrote all this up to disperse its stark message. And in return, received almost exclusively aggressive and mocking comments entirely from US citizens who sought to find 100 different ways to discount the process that their own government had called for. It was only foreign commentators that wanted the US role to change, it was initially argued. When it was pointed out that that wasn’t true, the accusation was that the only requests for a change in the USG’s role came from a malicious email campaign by ICANN-haters. That argument was also easily picked apart and discarded, but still the abuse came.
When just a few days later, a white paper from the DoC lawyer that had originally written ICANN contract back in 1998, and a highly respected US lobbyist said exactly the same thing – that the USG had to transition its role, even providing a “concrete pathway” for it to reach that point, the response was more muted, although I continued to receive abusive comments, some with laughable threats that my biases had been noted down.
And then, when the DoC finally admitted last night at its own public meeting that it intended to transition its role, my story has, unbelievably attracted yet more aggression and abuse – exclusively from US citizens – taking exception at perceived slights and biases. DoC officials even admit privately that their biggest problem is not with a transition mechanism or approach but in selling the idea to a US electorate that has learned to equate oversight of the Internet with vital national interests and security.
And throughout that whole process, the US press has failed catastrophically in its job to inform readers about what is going on. Now they are having to try to bridge the chasm between what they said was happening and what the reality now is.
The results are extraordinary.
Some are painting it as the US government thinking about handing over control in its benevolence: “The U.S. government is thinking of starting the process of privatising ICANN, the California-based not-for-profit company that administers the domain names on the internet.”
Others have made the discussion looks more balanced than it really is: “Internet governance experts argued yesterday for and against having the U.S. government hand over the technical coordination and management of the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) completely this year to ICANN, a private, nonprofit organization.”
Getting more bizarre, some have made out ICANN to be unimportant and then mispresented reality by a fake hedging of bets: “The federal government appeared unlikely to relinquish oversight of the system for assigning and managing website domain names after a Commerce Department hearing Wednesday raised broad concerns about giving an obscure Marina del Rey nonprofit unsupervised control.”
Some have gone the corrupt route of boldly stating a stance and then failing to provide any actual evidence otherwise: “Contrary to some reports, things are not about to change. After a meeting at the Commerce Department, Acting Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, John M.R. Kneuer, said that the existing arrangement was likely to continue, at least for another year. ‘There certainly are still strong arguments that there’s more work to be done,’ said Kneuer.”
And some, incredibly, have simply stated the complete opposite of the truth: “At a U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC) hearing on Wednesday to assess whether the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) should be handed over to the private sector, most panelists indicated a preference for continued U.S. government involvement in the management of the Net.”
Like I said at the start, it really is extraordinary how a government’s philosophy can permeate a society.