Nobody cares about the future of the Internet

John Oliver told us that "If you want to do something evil, put it inside something that sounds incredibly boring," and there's no domain in which that is more true than the world of Internet governance.

Julia "Law Comics" Powles attended last week's ICANN meeting in London, an event that attracted less media attention than the launch of mobile app "Yo," but which was the setting for discussions that will shape the future that we and our children and grandchildren will inhabit. Powles has seen the writing on the wall, and it's grim:

If this was just about money, it might not matter. But it points to a deeper problem. Icann has made itself the central manager of the furniture of the internet - from the IP addresses of each connected device to the root servers that tune to Icann’s single root zone and domain name system.

These are some of the most powerful strategic assets on the planet. They are intrinsic to the internet experience that we all value, but also to the fears - surveillance, incumbency, inequality - that we harbour. And right now these assets (themselves a distracting mirage from greater power held by the NSA, Google, and others) are being bartered in a disturbingly one-directional manner.

Today, the ultimate backstop control over key global internet resources rests with the US government. Actions are afoot to transfer them to the so-called global community (while keeping Icann as a private US company, subject only to US law). But the US government has expressly removed from the table a seemingly obvious alternative steward: the United Nations, despite its imperfections. That leaves Icann, with all its hopeless conflicts, as the only option in a vacant lot.

The byzantine, meandering discussion on the future of the internet [Julia Powles/The Guardian]

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  1. I'm less than impressed with ICANN (gTLDs, in particular, are just plain insanity and Not Going To Go Well and whoever thought that that was a good idea needs a brutal flogging); but I must admit to being somewhat baffled by this one.

    The thesis about the dominant centrality of ICANN, IP allocation, DNS, etc. appears to ignore the multiple layers (wholly outside ICANN's control) of entities involved in, say, resolving a domain name. Much of the time, the various intermediate nameservers do just pass on the news from the root as efficiently as possible, since people like names to resolve unambiguously; but nothing requires them to (and they often don't, either for the purposes of setting up various internal services that don't need standardization because they only exist inside one organization's network, or for the purposes of DNS-based blocking of a given domain).

    The intermediate infrastructure is also where most of the juicy surveillance, incumbency, and inequality live.

    The spooks who watch the internet tap it where the traffic is, physically latching on to various backbone links and subverting ISPs. The advertisers and analytics creeps hit you at the server, and have also sometimes tried to work with ISPs.

    Incumbency and inequality are substantially in the same boat (there's definitely a case to be made that the IPv4 allocation either misjudged or just didn't care about the developing world in particular, even more than it misjudged growth in the developed world; but with ~4 billion addresses available, period, and expected demand well north of 1/person, even a perfectly informed and maximally just allocation would only have postponed the inevitable for a slightly longer time). IDNs are still a little hairy, largely because Unicode is a little hairy(which is largely because natural language is a lot hairy); but present, and the other aspects of how your access to the internet is horrible are mostly between you and your abusive, overpriced, 'traffic shaping' ISP. ICANN is about as involved with that as the ITU is with your long distance bill(actually, probably less, since the ITU does wade into 'tariff' matters, in the ITU-T series D and likely elsewhere).

    Is it the mere fact of being a US entity, rather than a good, honest, representative, UN entity like WIPO, that is disturbing, or are they up to something more egregious than floating some really lousy TLDs?

    (Just in the interests of clarity, I wish to emphasize that the US government does not appear to be a good friend of the virtues of the internet; but that (largely because ICANN isn't a terribly good vehicle for the purpose) they don't seem to bother ICANN much about it. When the MPAA's personal branch of ICE does a seizure of 'pirate' domains, do they call ICANN? No, the lean on the individual registrar, something that registrars in all jurisdictions are vulnerable to, in relation to law enforcement in that jurisidction. When the NSA spies on all the things, do they call ICANN? Well, I would be unsurprised if they have a look at the logs of the root nameservers now and again, just because they can; but given that almost everyone actually gets their results through one or more layers of intermediate nameservers, I'd be surprised if they find much. The actual action is in tapping fiber, co-opting telcos, and getting access to data stored by assorted companies. To the degree that the US dominates the internet, they largely do so by means that depend on DNS working properly; but don't much depend on whose DNS it is. The spooks tap and hack all over, the ad-weasels build services under American jurisdiction that foreign nationals use, etc.

    When I compare ICANN's present state, where their greatest sin appears to be an...alignment of interests...with domain registrars that is clouding their judgement about spewing worthless TLDs, with the alternatives, my major concern is that two interests are being conflated: 'avoid American hegemony on the internet' is a totally valid one. Heck, I'm an American and I don't much like what we do there. However, fighting over ICANN is mostly symbolic in relation to that goal. If somebody else ran the root, the stuff that the NSA, Google, and Facebook do would be unaffected. The longer-term concern is that, because of its symbolic value, and because the plausible 'international' administration would be some sort of UN appendage, is that 'internet governance' would become something were we don't even pretend to have noble ideals while skulking around in the shadows; but actively take input from assorted bastions of freedom of expression. If, say, the membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council doesn't make you wonder what great ideas an international, representative, body for 'internet governance' could come up with, I'm not sure what would.

    As it stands, the US talks rather more talk than they uphold; but because ICANN isn't terribly useful as a technical apparatus, they've shown minimal interest in poking at it. Benign neglect by a country with a strong interest in talking about free speech beats a lot of alternatives.)

  2. Why does she need to point out the imperfections of the U.N.? Has the American right really been so successful in attacking them that the mere mention of the U.N. needs to be caveated? Would the trolls otherwise line up to mock the idealist who foolishly believes in internationalism?

    The "imperfections" of the U.N. are very often ones that can be fixed, given the will. Their biggest problem - like so many institutions - is a constant barrage of attacks from the American right. That and underfunding because of... guess who?

    It seems to me they're the ideal steward of a certain amount of internet infrastructure. It seems likely they would run things in a fairly impartial, technocratic way - maybe not what we expect from a for-profit corporation.

  3. I wouldn't be so quick to take that interpretation (if nothing else, The Guardian is publishing the piece, so if they are pandering to Americans it's indirectly, by virtue of those they may have influenced). There are plenty of boring-techie-standards things (some UN, like the ITU, some not, like ISO) that more or less just work, with fairly minimal controversy, at least not any the public cares about.

    The trouble is that only half of ICANN's mission is impartial and technocratic: The numbers part? No problem, everyone just wants that to work.

    Names? Oh, not good. The current fad for 'meaningless but short and memorable' among tech startups aside, names mean things. And meaning is contentious. The kind of contentious that laws get passed to enforce and sometimes people get killed over. And, notably, the kind that is handled rather differently in different places.

    Just a trivial example, when Powles writes "Apart from a flare-up from a French government minister at one point of proceedings (on protecting wine domains), the whole show went largely unnoticed.", she is referring to the brewing spat over whether '.wine' and '.vin' TLDs should be allowed if the registrars do no agree to uphold the entirety of french and EU regulation concerning 'protected geographical designations' and the (complex) system of descriptions for various wine types and subtypes. (the GAC Early Warnings, where governments can lodge objections to TLD proposals is fairly entertaining reading, by bureaucratic standards...)

    ICANN has, for the most part, tried to ignore ontology as much as possible (trademark disputes are settled at the venue specified by a given registrar, hence the hilarious Ron Paul going to a multinational UN entity to forcibly expropriate a domain name from his faithful followers story, national TLDs set standards according to the nation's wishes, and a few legacy domains, .gov, .mil, etc. are Uncle Sam's). To the degree that they succeed, leaving meaning to consenting adults and just turning strings into IPs, everything works fine.

    The concern is arguably quite legitimate that a multinational body would (in addition to almost definitely representing a collection of legal codes less conducive to free speech than the US) become an epic morass of brutal battles over culturally-salient TLDs.

    I have no sympathy for the 'we don't need your hippie internationalism because we should just squish countries that oppose our hegemony' school of criticism of the UN; but I certainly wouldn't want domain names being under the scrutiny of the any UN member state who feels like whining. That's just asking for lowest-common-denominator freedom of expression on the internet (at the domain name level, since ICANN doesn't actually do much more than domain names and handing out IP blocks).

    If running the internet were like handing out phone numbers, I'd be less skeptical.

  4. rigs says:

    Of course the mere mention of the UN needs to be caveated. Have you been following its workings with any interest?
    Can we start with the fact that the majority of its members are various kinds of dictatorships and autocracies? Or that in many of its organs the "election" system is similar to movie night, as John Oliver so aptly put it?

    Saying it can be fixed "given the will" is a cop-out. It's been there since 1945. It hasn't been fixed. What are they waiting for? I think we know the answer.

    By the way, does internationalism have to be embodied in the UN?

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