The new rulers of cyberspace
As the Internet address system goes private, some fear unaccountable oligarchy - or absolute anarchy.
Monday 02 November 1998
Their names, with the possible exception of the technology pundit Esther Dyson, may not mean much to the average Web surfer. But the changes they will implement are momentous, freeing the Net from US governmental control.
The result, depending on who you believe, will either be a golden age of free competition and self-regulation, or the subjugation of the Internet to an unaccountable oligarchy: a privately owned toll-booth on the information superhighway.
The addressing system - which allocates domain names, such as independent.co.uk, and matches them with numerical addresses, allowing traffic to flow online - has long been administered under US government contract by a private firm, Network Solutions, and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). But faced with international pressure, and overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task - Network Solutions can register 7,000 new domain names in a single day - Washington has been trying to extricate itself or the last two years.
The team named last week will include an executive committee made up of Dyson, who was chosen interim chairman; Michael Roberts, interim president and CEO; Gregory L Crew of Australia; and Hans Kraaijenbrink of the Netherlands. Other initial board members include Geraldine Capdeboscq of France; George H Conrades of the United States; Frank Fitzsimmons of the United States; Jun Murai of Japan; Eugenio Triana of Spain; and Linda S Wilson, president of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Together they constitute the embryonic form of the private, non-profit body that will take over the job. In a field where inventing a new acronym is always to be preferred to recycling an old one, the organisation has been optimistically baptised ICANN: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
As well as administering the most popular "top-level" domains - .com, .org, .net, .edu and .gov - ICANN will be able to create new ones, such as the much-touted .store for retail operations and .per for personal homepages. Private companies will then be permitted to establish registries dispensing the new domains to businesses and individuals. Ira Magaziner, President Clinton's chief adviser on Internet policy, summarised his hopes for the new arrangement earlier this year with a barrage of upbeat adjectives: the new body would be "non-profit, independent, decentralised, transparent, international and focused on a limited set of tasks".
Others, though, have grave doubts. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is spearheading calls for the new rulers of cyberspace to be made more accountable. Otherwise, says Barry Steinhardt, the foundation's president, "We'll have a private corporation running a public trust, administering much of the infrastructure of the Internet without constraints. ICANN is going be in a position to recognise, or refuse to recognise, the existence of entities on the Internet. So, hypothetically, if Amnesty International wants to register the name amnestyinternational.org, ICANN would be in a position to say they couldn't - for totally arbitrary reasons."
The Internet consultant Gordon Cook, in his online publication The Cook Report, seems even more concerned. "What gives [the designers of ICANN] the right to function by stealth as the designers of Internet governance for the entire world? They say they are benevolent, but they have deceived the rest of us to create an ICANN that clearly fails the tests that the US government has set for it," he writes.
Then there's the alternative nightmare vision - not of shadowy oligarchy but chaotic anarchy. As top-level domains proliferate, so will opportunities for so-called "warehousers" to register company domain names, demanding inflated prices to release them: a headache for big business and a cause, no doubt, of much glee among the growing ranks of Internet lawyers.
Whatever version of the future proves correct, says Jonathan Zittrain, the executive director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the cumulative power of the huge online community of ordinary users could yet give them the last word. "The hope is that out of a process that hasn't been entirely open you arrive miraculously at a new organisation that is. That's exactly the stage we're at now. [ICANN's] bylaws have huge holes in them, especially regarding accountability, but if they don't handle it well, they'll be tossed out."
A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend
A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 James Foley 'beheaded': Isis video shows militant with British accent 'execute US journalist' – and warns Obama of more to come
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns aged 27
- 3 Cilla Black defends Cliff Richard: 'I am positive that the allegations are without foundation'
- 4 Nicki Minaj finally releases predictable 'Anaconda' video
- 5 James Foley 'beheading': Met police warn public watching murder video could be criminal offence
Calvin Harris named highest-paid DJ in the world ahead of David Guetta and Avicii
JK Rowling releases new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing Celestina Warbuck, the 'Singing Sorceress'
Reading Festival 2014: Tesco branch replaces salad and potatoes for Jagermeister and vodka
The funniest joke at Edinburgh Fringe 2014: Tim Vine wins for second time
Celebrity Big Brother 2014 line-up: Meet the contestants from Lauren Goodger to Kellie Maloney and Audley Harrison
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Scottish Independence Referendum: Salmond described as 'arrogant, ambitious and dishonest' by Scottish women