News, views and what I choose to dos

What was said at the NTIA and what is news?

Category : Internet governance · by Jul 28th, 2006

I’m still getting grief from people taking exception to my Register story about what happened at the [tag]NTIA[/tag] yesterday.

I’ve sent some of the emails to The Reg in order to get a right to reply in there (plus possibly a Flame of the Week). But I’m going to bother The Reg with lots more articles on the same event and so I figured I would use this blog to explain where I think there has been a breakdown of communication.

First of all, there is clearly a big US/UK disparity over headlines and what their purpose is.

In the UK, it is written into law that a reader of a story is assumed to have read the entire story before making up their mind. As a result, you cannot be sued on a headline alone. And the result is eye-catching headlines that do not and are not expected to give an entirely accurate representation of the story itself.

It strikes me that US citizens view such a headline as somehow dishonest, and they expect their headlines to be a precise summary of the story.

I say this because 90 percent of the complaints and criticisms I have received over my article “United States cedes control of the internet – but what now?“, appear to assume that my article said the USG is going to hand over control of ICANN and, in some cases IANA, immediately. When, in fact, the actual words in the story (959 of them) say no such thing.

Click here!

The headline is not 100 percent accurate – I admit it! It was not supposed to be. A headline – especially online – is to intrigue people and get them to click on it in order to read the story.

With hindsight, since a large numbers of readers were going to be American, I should have taken a straighter, duller line, something like: “US government prepared to step back from [tag]ICANN[/tag] control” or “US government reviews Net control stance”. The reason for my headline was that rather than give a review of the meeting itself, I had a sense of it being a historic meeting (as did many others actually there) and I was hoping to do a piece that tried to show the context and where the future lies.

Again, the problem perhaps is that this is the piece I wrote first. People would no doubt have been less snappy if I had done a review of the meeting, then a summary of what was said by people, and then a wider-ranging piece.


The other error I made along the same lines was to include the phrase “mindlessly patriotic electorate”. I still argue that the sentence is entirely true and that it doesn’t suggest that all Americans are mindlessly patriotic – as some emails to me have claimed it does.

I said the meeting has decided two things, and the first was: “That the US government recognises it has to transition its role if it wants to keep the internet in one piece (and it then has to sell that decision to a mindlessly patriotic electorate).”

That is an entirely true sentence and can be backed up by the countless emails I have received, and the thousands upon thousands of blog posts and news articles and so on that have come out of the US since July 2005, and especially when the Tunis Summit was on. The US electorate has latched onto this idea of America looking after the Internet and everyone else trying to pull it away from them.

This appears in a variety of forms, most commonly that the “corrupt United Nations” will take over, or, worse, that the Chinese will take over. This will mean, I don’t know really, that the Internet will become corrupt or censored of something, it’s unclear.

The UN

It is also all complete baloney. First of all, very few people in the world know about the realities of the United Nations and think that all it is is the Security Council and then big arguments over wars. Few also connect it with what UNESCO does, what WIPO does, what UNICEF does, the Human Rights Council, and so on and so forth.

But ignoring that, the UK and Canada and Australia and Germany and France and god knows how many other countries are also completely and implacably opposed to the UN running the Internet. Yet that simply fact was never mentioned in US news reports because it didn’t tie in with the “US protecting the Internet from the UN” angle.

Russia and assorted countries want the ITU (part of the UN) running the show because that is where their influence lies. And developing countries want the UN running the show because the UN will then provide those countries with extensive resources and entry points in the discussion automatically because that is the UN model.

But NO ONE that has a big Net infrastructure and industry wants the UN in charge – and what’s more, there are countless on-the-record comments to that effect.

So when I say “mindlessly patriotic electorate” this is precisely what I mean. A determined and blinkered effort by US representatives to see running the Internet as a case of the US of A against the rest of the world. And that quite simply is not the case.

Press coverage

But I have a much bigger beef than that. And that is with the US press that have taken the most peculiar approach of ignoring any criticism of their government to the extent that the stories appearing are actively dampened down.

Press freedom in an open democracy means that you say what is going on even if you know the authorities won’t like it, and even if it goes against what you personally believe in. That is the vital role that journalism plays.

I defy anyone to tell me that the news point of the NTIA meeting was not the NTIA statement made by Kneuer that the USG thought people had “very, very expansively” viewed the four principles and that they “should not be read so expansively so as to say that we are going to retain all of our historic roles”. The only element that the USG was interested in retaining, he said, was “extraordinarily technical in nature”.

This is as close as the USG has ever got to explaining what it means by the first principle and it makes it quite clear that it has decided that it has to end its control of ICANN. That is the news point right there.

The second most significant news point ws two statement from the Internet Society and the Canadian government.

Now, both of these statements were highly critical of ICANN and of the USG, but there were more newsworthy that everyone else’s statements for some very simple reasons:

  • The Internet Society has always been seen as a USG bedfellow. It also represents the core of people that actually built and continue to build the Internet. Its opinion is vital.
  • The Canadian government was the only government invited to speak.
  • The fact that both statements were highly critical were news in themselves. Whatever is furthest from the centre is noteworthy and therefore newsworthy

Now, if one party has stood up and been incredibly positive about the USG’s role, said that the USG should not only continue its oversight but because it had done such a great job, it should say right now that it will stay in charge for the next 10 years – that also would have been newsworthy.

But no one did that. The statements of support were measured and there much talk of improvements that could be made and how the system worked fine at the moment but there had to be a change soon, but maybe not yet.

Now they are all important points but they are not the news. And yet it is these final comments that have formed the core of many of the news reports coming out of the US. There is either conscious or sub-conscious self-censorship going on and it is doing a disservice to US citizens.

The two examples that I would highlight of the best journalism are Anne Broache at CNet (I note Declan McCullagh helped with the story), with her “U.S. voices openness to private Net control” and Kevin Murphy for Computer Business review and his “ICANN likely to remain tied to US for now“.

What I would point out however is that both stories lead with a non-commital and hesitant first paragraph: “The United States may be willing to cede at least some of its historic control…” and “The US government appeared unlikely to give up its oversight of [ICANN] in the near future…”

Neither of these intros would last a second in front of a UK news editor, and I suspect, wouldn’t have appeared in these publications either if it wasn’t for the fact that there is a odd reluctance in the US press to criticise the US government at the moment.

That is my issue. And I really think it is very, very noticeable that the only people criticising my article come from the United States. There is a big disparity between what people believe to be true and what the reality is, and if someone has the audacity to point that out, it is perhaps inevitable that they’ll be faced with hostility and aggression.

My advice for the US press: physician, heal thyself.


(10) comments

Ian Brown
14 years ago ·

I didn’t realise that the OECD was part of the UN ;)

14 years ago ·

Oh shit. You’re right of course. I actually had UNICEF in mind when I wrote that and was initially confused as to what you were talking about.

How did UNICEF become OECD? That’s something hidden somewhere in my brain chemicals that will most likely never see the light of day.

I’m going to change it but these two comments will remain here to forever point to the fact that I am a fool.

Ta, Ian


Kevin Murphy
14 years ago ·

You could have saved yourself some of the hassle by adding the word “to” to your headline. “US to cede control”. Make it future tense, problem mitigated.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s ever ok to knowingly run an inaccurate headline. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in.

Thanks for the compliment, anyway.

14 years ago ·

I deny entirely that the headline is inaccurate.

It is simply written in different grammar in order to make it more active and present.

What I think is more evil in terms of journalism is “So-and-so will say later today that…” It is news playing with time in order to make it more immediate.


Kevin Murphy
14 years ago ·

You said “US cedes control of the internet”

“Cede” means to “relinquish” or “yield” or “give up”.
(American Heritage Dictionary, but the paper OED on my desk says the same thing)

The US didn’t cede control of the internet. The headline was inaccurate.

It really is that simple.

14 years ago ·
Kevin Murphy
14 years ago ·

Hah! Yeah, okay, I have the mini version. Nice one.

I made a bad.


14 years ago ·

That’s completely missing the point.

If someone says they are going to do something, and it is certain to happen, then it is not exactly a revolutionary leap in the dark for a headline to put that future action into the present tense.

That’s all the headline did. And then – and I think perhaps this is worth pointing out for the 800th time – the actual story explains what really happened.

I find it incredible that people colour their entire understanding of a lengthy story based solely on the headline.

The real reason why everyone is upset about the story however is because of this comedy chasm the media has built up between what they want to be true and what is really happening.


Kevin Murphy
14 years ago ·

I can’t see how this is a subject for debate. This is the basics.

It’s not about me missing your point.

It’s not some kind of grammatical error or grammatical choice.

I’m talking about reporting something incorrect.

The Register reported that the US government ceded control of the internet.

The US government did not cede control of the internet.

Ergo, The Register’s headline was incorrect.

14 years ago ·

The precise moment when the US government ceded control of ICANN was when Commerce assistant secretary John Kneuer said: “That should not be read so expansively so as to say that we are going to retain all of our historic roles.

“We clearly have an incentive and long-standing policy to complete this transition and that our oversight role of ICANN should transition away.”

That says: we are going to end our oversight role of ICANN. Until that precise moment, it was uncertain what the US government intended to do.

Feel free to wait until the Department of Commerce puts out an official press release. Or wait for the very day that ICANN oversight is ended. And then, when that happens, refer to the fact that the first time the US government finally agreed to shift the role was on 26 July 2006 at an NTIA public meeting in Washington.

If your point is that I used the term “Internet” instead of “ICANN” – that’s because it’s a headline and few readers know what ICANN is, does or refers to.

If you don’t think that was made clear, the third paragraph reads: “However, assistant commerce secretary John Kneuer, the US official in charge of such matters, also made clear that the US was still determined to keep control of the net’s root zone file – at least in the medium-term.”

A headline is not supposed to be a precise summary of a story. How can it be? That’s what the story is for.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *