May 1, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Jack at I were at the Markle Foundation in New York today to speak about the book, and as is so often the case, ICANN and domain name governance came up.

Carol Cosgrove-Sacks, until recently the United Nations’ Director of Trade, asked whether an Internet that increasingly reflects the will of individual nations, as our book suggests, won’t inevitably need a more globally responsive domain name system. In other words, she asked whether, in the long run, ICANN just cannot survive.

Esther Dyson, who happened to be at the event, gave a most interesting response. “Domain name governance” she said (and I paraphrase) “is like the One Ring. You can’t trust anyone with its power.”

While she didn’t say this, ICANN under this logic is basically like a hobbit — an organization too weak to be a threat to anyone.

“ICANN has two things going for it” said Dyson, “it lacks power, and it lacks legitimacy. If ICANN tried to do anything controversial, the U.S., Europe, Japan, and the world internet community would resist and put a stop to it.”

So is that a good enough answer? Is a decent result enough, or does the process matter?

The question is central to our book. In writing Chapter 3 of our book we interviewed, among others, Ira Magaziner — who shed very helpful light on the whole process that lead to ICANN. (Readers may be particularly interested in his discussion of the famous 1998 “show down” with the late Jon Postel.)

The view taken by Magaziner and others in the Administration parallel Dyson’s hobbit thesis. The idea was something like this: the U.S. government needs to step in to prevent regulation of the Internet. Call it “unregulation,” or regulation to stop regulation.

That seems like a paradox, yet for Americans, how you feel about “unregulation” is a key to future debates over the internet and internet policy (it is crucial to the network neutrality issue, as I’ll discuss later this week). In short, given the enormity of government power, our book says that sometimes people will want and need government to keep the internet free from, yes, government, and governments.

More on this as we go on.

  • Michael Froomkin

    It just amazes me people can say this given that ICANN has already done some pretty bad stuff — like enact a UDRP that violates basic norms of due process.

    Ok, it’s not on a par with breaking the Internet, but from any other body we’d say that was pretty bad, wouldn’t we?

  • witch king of angmar

    does this make Verisign, etc into Nazgul?

  • Michael

    I linked to this at ICANNWatch. One of the commentators there makes the case for ICANN as Gollum. Another, Karl Auerbach, challenges the ICANN-is-harmless claim, pointing to $ costs….

  • Branko Collin

    The thought of governments forming a threat to the internet strikes me as unintuitive. As far as I seem to perceive, governments have hardly discovered there is an internet yet, let alone that they have had time to form an opinion about it, or even assess it as a threat.

    And looking at this from another angle, the internet barely seems to be something that the government can be involved in. The idea of internet governance seems as preposterous to me as having a department of sweet sixteen parties, or a ministry of apple pie (also known as “podcasting“).

    But of course, that says as much about me as about governments and the internet. To me, the internet is a collection of voices. And voices have in common that they are personal and unique. In many ways they are the exact opposite of what governments stand for.

    A good internet lets these voices connect in an optimal way. Of course, that is not at all that different from what a government (or at least an idealized government) tries to achieve for its citizens. But governments do that because they have to, and nation-state governments do what they have to do because of silly dotted lines on maps, and a sense of identity that they try to attach to these lines. I am not sure governments are needed on the internet. What’s the identity of a nation-state on the internet?