“EU says Internet could fall apart”

You don’t read headlines like that one every day. The story, published recently by the Guardian, testifies to the growing controversy surrounding the issue of Internet governance. While the United States funded the development of the Internet since the 1960s, the Net spread its wings in the 1990s and outgrew its original purpose of government and academic use. Now, in the 2000s, the billion-people international community that connects to the Internet on a daily basis has inspired the question of Internet governance: Who controls the internet? The bottom line is the United States controls the backbone on which digital traffic flows. Now, the European Union and developing countries don’t like it.

When you log on to the Internet, there is an information exchange that occurs before you even receive content from a requested server. Each computer is assigned a unique number called an Internet Protocol, or IP, address for the purpose of routing traffic. The first generation, and most popular, of the IP addresses is in four-part dot-decimal notation. Early on in the Internet’s history, it was deemed better to assign domain names that corresponded to IP addresses because of the simplicity. If not, you would be required to type a ten digit number to access WorldNetDaily’s website. Instead, when you request WorldNetDaily.com, the Domain Name System (DNS) matches the .com name to the server’s IP address and you receive the webpage.

Yet, imagine waking up one morning and instead of logging on to the Internet, every server request left you with a “domain not found” error. And imagine these errors weren’t isolated to your region or even your Internet service provider, but were an international failure. The multi-billion dollar e-commerce market would be at a stand still. Nothing so disastrous has happened thanks to the stable foundation of the Domain Name System and the system of Internet Protocol addresses that allow digital traffic to be routed smoothly across the World Wide Web.

Under contract from the Commerce Department, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, was founded to take over the tasks of DNS, IP and assigned numbers. Since its inception in the late ’90s, the nonprofit corporation headquartered in California has been and still is in charge of top-level domain names such as .com, .net, .biz, .co, etc. While there have been some organizational controversies surrounding ICANN, there have been no major mistakes or failures that could understandably lead to an international revolt. Yet, there is a concerted effort on the part of foreign nations to take control of the role of ICANN.

In Tunisia next month, delegates from around the world will converge for two days for a United Nations summit that will discuss improvements to international connectivity specifically in developing nations. The most important part of this summit is, however, this issue of Internet governance. The European Union has proposed a system where ICANN would be folded into an international body that would oversee the addressing system. Yet, unless there is a major change in U.S. policy between then and now, there’s nothing anyone is going to be able to do about it. The United States physically controls the root servers.

Resolutions introduced in both the House and Senate have emphatically echoed language used by the Bush administration that the U.S. will not relinquish control. This has led to the European Union threatening a possible fragmentation of the Internet where regions around the world would have their own unconnected addressing systems.

It leaves many people asking, why the controversy? It’s not as if the United States has attempted to silence speech on the Internet or create an uneven playing field in e-commerce. The only possible explanation is that nations not in power are attempting to exert power over the Internet not for the purpose of efficiency, but simply for the sake of arrogant control. This is unacceptable to U.S. leaders, and rightly so. Until there is hard evidence that ICANN and the Department of Commerce are sacrificing connectivity for some sort of American power grab, there’s not much justification for a United Nations system.

For now, all we can do is wait until the United Nations summit to see what becomes of this power grab. Here’s hoping the future of the Internet isn’t left in the hands of an international group of tyrants, dictators and a few liberal democracies.

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