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The dotcom contract and dangerous USG myopia

Category : Internet governance · by Dec 1st, 2006

I am very tired so I have had to check what the new dotcom agreement – amended and then approved late yesterday by the US government’s Department of Commerce – actually says several times before I believed it.

Even now, I’m not so sure I have got it right. Which is worrying because I’ve just written a news analysis of it for The Register and if I’ve got it wrong it will prove very embarrassing. From the words I have read, it appears to me though that he Congressmen who unfortunately demonstrated their almost total ignorance of how the Internet works in reality at the September hearings, have given themselves oversight of the dotcom registry – the most important part of the Internet currently – until 2012.

Now, I know how this has happened: it’s because of VeriSign’s extraordinary political lobbying power in Washington. But even so, how extraordinarily short-sighted of the USG not to see how much this is going to irritate the rest of the world and for what? Because VeriSign is very generous in its campaign contributions.

Dangerous influence

The one really good thing about the ICANN-VeriSign agreement – in fact, the only good thing – was that it settled the power play between the two. Finally ICANN will be able to do its job, free from VeriSign’s behind-the-scenes influence and lawsuits. But with the USG able to override ICANN *even when* it makes it autonomous in 2009 (we hope), VeriSign is again in a position of unjustified and dangerous influence.

Am I getting carried away here? I don’t think so, not if I’ve read the contract right.

Perhaps the lesson to learn here is the wider and broader nature of power. This is something that governments understand implicitly and something I have just begun to grasp of late. The US government has the power to write what it likes into this contract and so it has done so. But it’s not so outrageous that people will refuse to accept it. It’s all about keeping your hand in and having one more lever than your opponent.

The special case of dotcom

Perhaps history will record the continued control of the dotcom registry as the price for the US government finally handing over control of the Internet to the international community. I’d like to think that by the time 2012 comes around that dotcoms are neither here or there, that the ccTLDs and new gTLDs (and also those mechanisms outside the vanilla DNS) have turned the Internet on its head.

I would love it if VeriSign, rather than increasing its fees by seven percent every year, was forced to cut them because people were dropping their dotcoms. But, let’s be honest, it’s not going to happen. The dotcom registry is a special case, despite the number of people that try to pretend it isn’t.

I hope this decision doesn’t have the effect of undermining ICANN. But what really concerns me is that the same politicians that have made this stupid and myopic contract change will be the same sort of self-interested people that will be in a position to undermine the Internet at a later date.

The dotcom – which was the shining symbol of the rise of this tremendous global medium we call the Internet – could well prove its downfall if we don’t grown unused to its commanding status.

P.S. I’ve just seen The Reg has stuck my piece up. I hope I’m wrong about all this.


(3) comments

Kevin Murphy
15 years ago ·

I reckon you’re generally along the right tracks, but I think you maybe blurred the lines between the Department of Commerce and Congress a little too much.

Commerce is executive branch, Congress is the legislature. I don’t think Congress had much, if anything, to do with the new .com amendments.

15 years ago ·

Hey Kev,

Well this is where I wish I know more people in Washington. Where I’m confused is how much power Congress can influence over the DoC in the *real world*.

My understanding of the DoC is that, like most arms covering business in government, it has a much more relaxed, pragmatic, business view of the world. And the DoC has been showing signs of understanding that for its own sake, the US has to hand over this troublesome control of the Net which provides nothing but headaches for comparatively little reward.

But the Congressional meetings and the huge political lobbying that has been going on on both sides – CFIT, GoDaddy et al on one side and ole bruiser VeriSign on the other – have skewed the process.

So I *think* once it becomes such a big politicial issue, the DoC has little choice but to find a way through the politicial warfield. As a result, the policy was decided more by Congress than the DoC.

But even if that’s right – and I’m sure I am missing many of the finer points – I am still amazed at the DoC agreeing to this and what is really worrying is that it shows the DoC still has the mentality – or at least isn’t prepared to argue back with people that have the mentality – that the US “built it so we should own it”. This is patent nonsense of the most powerful kind.

Who knows, maybe control of the dotcom registry is going to be the thing that allows the USG to extricate itself from the propaganda frenzy it started for WSIS. Maybe the DoC can’t see a way of handing over ICANN control without keeping something they can wave at the US public.

What makes me worried is that it is VeriSign at the middle of it. If VeriSign is allowed to continue living its semi-autonomous life in the heart of the Internet, only problems will result. ICANN will not be able to haul the company into line in the way that it really needs to – and the Internet needs it to.

VeriSign will be cracking open the champagne bottles on this one. In one way, you have to admire them, they are very canny political operators.


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