The Magazine

Who Controls the Internet?

The United States, for now, and a good thing, too.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By ARIEL RABKIN
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In order to please our European allies and our Third World critics, the Obama administration may be tempted to surrender one particular manifestation of American "dominance": central management of key aspects of the Internet by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Other countries are pushing for more control. Early this year, British cabinet member Andy Burnham told the Daily Telegraph that he was "planning to negotiate with Barack Obama's incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites." It would be a mistake for the administration to go along. America's special role in managing the Internet is good for America and good for the world.

Internet domain names (such as www.google.com) are managed hierarchically. At the top of the hierarchy is an entity called IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, operated on behalf of the Commerce Department. The U.S. government therefore has the ultimate authority to review or revoke any decision, or even to transfer control of IANA to a different operator.

Until now, the management of the Domain Name System has been largely apolitical, and most of the disputes that have arisen have been of interest only to insiders and the technology industry. IANA has concerned itself with fairly narrow questions like "Should we allow names ending in .info?" Commercial questions about ownership of names, like other property disputes, are settled in national courts. Political questions like "Who is the rightful government of Pakistan, and therefore the rightful owner of the .pk domain?" are settled by the U.S. Department of State.

There are persistent proposals to break the connection between IANA and the U.S. government. In these schemes, IANA would be directed by some international body, such as the United Nations or the International Telecommunication Union, which coordinates international phone networks. It is unclear what problem such proposals attempt to solve. There have been no serious complaints about American stewardship of the Internet, no actual abuses perpetrated by American overseers. But were we to abdicate this stewardship, a number of difficulties could arise.

Domain names sometimes present political questions. Which side in a civil war should control Pakistan's Internet domain? Should Israel's .il be suspended as punishment for its being an "Apartheid state"? What about Taiwan's .tw if China announces an attempt to "reabsorb its wayward province"?

Perhaps most serious, control of Internet names could become a lever to impose restrictions on Internet content. Many governments already attempt to control speech on the Internet. Some years ago, Yahoo! was subject to criminal proceedings in France for allowing Nazi memorabilia to be auctioned on its website. Britain, Canada, and Australia all have mandatory nationwide blacklists of banned sites, managed by nongovernmental regulators with minimal political oversight. Such blacklists can have unpredictable consequences: Wikipedia was badly degraded to British users for some hours because of a poorly designed censorship system targeting child pornography.

If we give control of the Internet naming infrastructure to an international organization, we must expect attempts to censor the Internet. The Organization of the Islamic Conference will doubtless demand the suppression of websites that "insult Islam" or "encourage hatred," and a number of European countries may well go along.

Most countries lack our First Amendment tradition, and if we wish to protect the free speech rights of Americans online, we should not allow Internet domain names to be hostage to foreign standards. Many other First World countries already have government-imposed restrictions on Internet speech that we would not contemplate here. Even if Internet governance were shared only with First World democracies, they might urge and ultimately demand that domain operators impose restrictions on content.

An international Internet-management organization could offer foreign governments a way to impose restrictions without public debate. Rather than having a political fight about the matter, governments might quietly pressure international regulators to draw up and gradually extend "responsible behavior" codes for online speech. This would follow a pattern familiar in other global institutions: Governments negotiate preferred policies without public participation and then present the results as an international consensus, beyond political challenge.

American stewardship does not mean the world must put its entire trust in U.S. oversight. If the United States started using its privileged role in ways that other governments found intolerable, they could override this behavior. It would be technically straightforward for foreign governments to maintain their own naming infrastructure and to instruct Internet service providers to use it. This heavy-handed government intervention in network operations, however, would likely receive substantial public scrutiny. It probably would not be undertaken unless the United States gravely misused its authority over the Internet.

This same reluctance would apply to potential American responses to censorship or mismanagement by an international organization. The United States could, in theory, set up a renegade, uncensored Internet. But there would likely be significant public distrust, substantial political acrimony, and a great deal of hesitation. We are better off keeping the public Internet free and leaving the social and technical burdens on governments that want to censor. The present system is thus perhaps the best way to prevent the naming system from being used to chill online speech worldwide.

American supervision of Internet naming is not a historical accident.Much of the world's telecommunications infrastructure was developed by national post offices. Our unusual tradition of private infrastructure development, including the railroad and telephone networks, made America fertile ground for the development of the Internet. We expect government not only to settle political questions, but also to protect the freedom of private entrepreneurs as much as possible. To the extent that the Internet is decentralized and self-governing, it is so because Americans expect society to work that way.

It is natural for other countries to resent the privileged role of the United States in Internet governance and to demand a greater measure of control. But if we believe in free speech, we ought to keep control of the Internet away from foreign governments that value it far less than we do.

Ariel Rabkin is a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.