About that “proposal for the UN to control the Internet”…

There’s a kerfuffle ongoing about whether the UN is trying to take over the Internet. The problem proposal:

“31B 3A.2 Member States shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming, addressing and identification resources and to support for the operation and development of basic Internet infrastructure.”

What nobody seems to be talking about is why this proposal has been brought forward. Let me remind those with short memories.

Earlier this year, the US government declared that it owned all international (.com/.net/.org) domain registrations, no matter what country they were registered in. A lot of people seem to think that that’s an uncontroversial fact, and that the 3-letter TLDs were always intended to be US-owned. This is simply not true, so let’s go back into history a bit.

If you read RFC 1591, it is clearly stated — by Jon Postel no less — that .com, .edu, .net and .org were created as “World Wide Generic Domains”, as opposed to the “United States Only Generic Domains” of .gov and .mil. Remember that Postel ran the Internet’s root domain name servers from the creation of the DNS until the late 90s. If there’s anyone who knew how DNS was supposed to be organized, it was him.

In the late 1990s, Postel announced that he wanted to found a Geneva-based, non-government, worldwide organization called the Council of Registrars — CORE — to manage the Internet’s domains. It would be staffed by representatives from all the national DNS root maintainers and domain registrars. The US government, on the other hand, wanted all domains to continue to be owned and run by Network Solutions.

In 1998, Postel asked the root nameserver maintainers to switch the definitive root for the world wide domains from Network Solutions (owned at the time by government defense contractor SAIC) to the non-government IANA. Postel was quickly threatened by the White House, and backed down.

In response to Postel’s attempt to let the Internet control itself, the US government set up ICANN and put Postel in charge. ICANN was to be the democratic organization which came up with policies for Internet naming. The actual servers would all continue to belong to Network Solutions, who would implement ICANN’s proposals — or not.

Jon Postel died a few months later, from unexpected complications following heart surgery.

ICANN quickly became controversial, announcing new policies for resolving arguments over domain name ownership, known as the “Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy”. This policy is biased in favor of corporate interests; if you own a domain and a corporation claims it as a trademark, you have to prove good faith, prove it’s not confusingly similar to the trademark, and prove you have a legitimate interest in the domain — or else it’s simply given to the corporation.

Next, ICANN abandoned plans for elections, becoming an undemocratic unelected quango. It’s now largely seen as a way for the Department of Commerce to set rules for the Internet without having them subject to judicial review.

For a while the DNS wars carried on quietly, on technical mailing lists, away from the gaze of average Internet users. However, in 2011 the US government proposed SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act”. One of the controversial provisions of the act was that the US government would be given a “global Internet kill switch”, with the ability to turn off any Internet domain that was deemed to infringe US laws. SOPA caused massive outcry, and was dropped by politicians. Internet activists congratulated themselves on a job well done.

And then the US government went ahead and used the kill switch anyway.

In March 2012, sports betting site bodog.com was shut down by US authorities. It was a completely legal web site, registered in Canada and owned and run by a Canadian company. However, the US government instructed Verisign (the current owner of Network Solutions) to make the DNS root name servers lie about the site’s IP address. They did so, and the site became unreachable by customers around the world.

The message to foreign companies and governments is stark: the global Internet domains all belong to the US government, to do with as it wishes, regardless of jurisdiction or national laws. And technically speaking, there’s nothing to stop the US government from seizing control of even more domains. It’s a declaration of trade war.

The US government doesn’t like your political position? They can simply declare your organization a sponsor of terrorism, and turn off your web sites. A US corporation gets a major legal judgement in its favor in the US, but not elsewhere in the world? The Department of Commerce can just tell Verisign to turn off the web sites of the defendant anyway.

This is what has countries like Russia up in arms and demanding worldwide control of the Internet, rather than having it controlled by the US government and its puppet organizations ICANN and Verisign.

The world’s other governments are approaching the ITU to try and achieve their goal because the ITU is one of the few worldwide standards organizations that works. The US has made it quite clear that it doesn’t consider itself bound by anything the UN decides. The ITU, however, controls the phone systems, which the US government has (so far) been unwilling to unilaterally mess with.

The big disappointment for me is that most of the media coverage is presenting this battle as Internet self-governance versus “UN controlled Internet”. Even respected names like Vint Cerf are dishonestly claiming that the ITU proposals would “centralize decision-making power”. He writes that the ITU would create “significant barriers to civil society participation”, completely ignoring that ICANN is unelected and we already have no participation in or right of review over US government decisions imposed by Verisign.

Let’s be clear about this: Internet self-governance died in 1998. This battle is about the US government having sole centralized control of the Internet, or worldwide governments controlling it jointly.

I do not say that because I favor the ITU proposals. One government dictator who has already abused his power, or many government dictators who might abuse theirs? Both those options on the table suck. My position is that we need to push for a third option, a return to how things were supposed to be when people like Jon Postel built the Internet.

Notice that the NYT article by Vint Cerf doesn’t even mention Postel. History is being quietly rewritten here. We’re being told that the US government always controlled the entire Internet domain name system, and that that’s how it was meant to be. Inconvenient facts to the contrary are quietly ignored, and we are presented with a false dichotomy for Internet governance. Don’t fall for it.