The new rulers of cyberspace

As the Internet address system goes private, some fear unaccountable oligarchy - or absolute anarchy.

SOMETHING HAPPENED last week that will fundamentally transform the Internet - and it had nothing to do with Microsoft's courtroom brawl with the US Department of Justice. With little ceremony, and virtually no media coverage, the 10 most powerful people in cyberspace were selected. Their mission: to oversee the privatisation of the address system that is the lifeblood of the Net.

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."

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