The Mayor of the Wild, Wild Web
A key development took place recently in the world of information technology, but received very little media attention, even in the tech press. Attendees at a United Nations summit on international governance of the Internet held in November 2005 in Tunis, Tunisia, decided to maintain the California-based Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) as the ultimate overseer of the Web and its root servers. This means the organization will manage and operate databases for domain names such as .com, .net, and .biz for at least the next five years. But the discussion about whether this decision was beneficial for the Internet is far from over.
The ICANN Primer
The organization was created in 1998 to take on contractual obligations like Internet Protocol (IP) address space allocation and root server system management functions at the behest of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Since then, the public-private organization has more or less been responsible for the wellbeing of the Internet. Indisputably, the Domain Name System (DNS) ICANN administers has been enormously beneficial in the adoption of the Web as a tool of commerce and communication for the masses. Without the DNS, all Web sites would be designated by strings of numbers rather than by their logical names.
The decision at the World Summit preserved its status as the sole international provider of these services. Another organization, the U.N. Internet Governance Forum, also was launched at the event, but it won’t have similar regulatory authority. Rather, it will serve as a global roundtable for continuous discussions about management of the Web.
Flames Heard ‘Round The World
Any time an institution wields a great deal of power and influence, it tends to attract controversy. ICANN, which performs a variety of tasks that affect billions of Web sites, has certainly had its share, and the list of complaints lodged against it reads like that of the Freemasons. Critics charge that the organization is far too secretive in its activities, because it often keeps the minutes of its thrice-annual meetings confidential. Additionally, ICANN generally holds these in far-flung locations that have significantly fewer Internet access options, thus excluding observers and potential critics. (For example, two of this year’s meetings will be held in Wellington, New Zealand, and Marrakesh, Morocco.)
Others maintain that ICANN is more or less a quasi-government agency bent on doing the bidding of its masters in Washington, D.C. In fact, claims to this effect were voiced at the World Summit by well-known world figures like Fidel Castro of Cuba and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who said a global platform such as the Internet needed to be under an international body. (One has to wonder if their, um, reputations in other arenas did far more harm than good to their arguments.) They might actually have a point: Uncle Sam definitely signs ICANN’s checks, and no country lobbied harder for the status quo at the World Summit. Yet this line of reasoning also ignores the organization’s recent efforts at further privatization.
Keeping The Internet Free
While ICANN might not indefinitely run this “network of networks” (Castro’s words: Muy bueno, Fidel—I couldn’t have put it better myself), most observers believe the recent decision is beneficial for Internet users for the time being. Keeping the Web under the control of a single organization will better ensure that all of it is accessible to all. If it weren’t, it could fall into a convoluted, unstandardized jumble of smaller, different Webs by nation or region. Also, as a result of this, Internet censorship would be easier for despots like—oh, I don’t know, perhaps Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe?
Another concern would be the cost and bureaucracy involved with ceding responsibility for URLs to another organization. An ICANN-like organization operated by the U.N. might jack up prices and involve much more red tape in registering a domain name. Also, there would be a temptation to extend these powers into other aspects of the Web.
I knew many IT professionals were geeks and proud of it, but even I was surprised by the results of this Web poll on the techie stereotype. Here’s what you had to say about both outsiders’ and your own perceptions of the individuals who comprise the IT industry:
Are you sick of the “computer geek” stereotype given to IT professionals? (as of 11/18/05)
Totally. Those people give us a dorky image. 16%
I’m not like that at all, but I know others who are. 21%
No, it’s funny and sometimes true. 43%
Live long and prosper. What was the question again? 20%
View other Web polls at www.certmag.com.
Brian Summerfield is Web editor for Certification Magazine. Send him your favorite study tips and tech tricks at firstname.lastname@example.org.