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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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.