[NetBehaviour] Control the Internet?
marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Mon Nov 14 13:49:05 CET 2005
November 14, 2005
Control the Internet? A Futile Pursuit, Some Say
By JOHN MARKOFF
The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 13 - Working with Pentagon funds in the 1960's andn
1970's, a small group of designers created a pioneering research network
called the Arpanet and a software framework that could let an unlimited
number of computers exchange data.
Their creation, which came to be known as the Internet, was decentralized in
nature, with its maintenance and administration left mostly to academia and
the private sector in the United States. Government intervention was
But as the Internet's reach has extended worldwide, an international
political battle over its control has arisen. A meeting sponsored by the
United Nations this week in Tunis will take up a challenge to American
authority over Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and
Numbers. Icann was established in 1998 to manage the Domain Name System, or
D.N.S., which assigns network names like disney.com and assures unique
The Tunis meeting, called the World Summit on the Information Society, will
consider calls for an end to unilateral American oversight. But several
people involved in the Internet's creation are concerned that the dispute
may be based on a false premise - that the Internet can lend itself to
centralized or governmental control - and could wind up fragmenting the
"Everyone seems to think that the D.N.S. system is a big deal, but it's not
the heartbeat of the Internet," said Leonard Kleinrock, a computer scientist
at the University of California, Los Angeles, who did pioneering research in
data packet switching, the fundamental technique underlying networks. "Who
controls the flow of the ocean? Nobody controls it, and it works just fine.
There are some things that can't be controlled and should be left
To varying degrees, the nine proposals to be considered by as many as 15,000
delegates convening Wednesday to Friday in Tunis call for replacing the
United States as the overseer of Icann with a new international political
structure, perhaps a treaty-based organization like the International
Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency.
Icann was created at the Clinton administration's behest as a private-public
alliance to oversee Internet addresses. Although Icann says it is advised by
more than 80 nations and has had citizens of many countries on its board, it
operates under a memorandum of understanding with the Commerce Department.
Icann was founded with the intent of becoming an independent or
"denationalized" group. But in June, the Bush administration backed away
from that plan, saying in a "statement of principles" issued by the National
Telecommunications and Information Administration that the United States had
the right to maintain oversight of Icann indefinitely.
In recent years, Icann has become a lightning rod, focusing opposition to
American political and economic power. A group of countries, led by
developing nations like Iran, China and Brazil, has put forward a range of
proposals calling for Icann's management to be made international; most call
for a shift to a group like the United Nations. Over the summer, a European
Union commissioner offered a parallel proposal.
At Tunis, "either there will be an agreement, or an agreement on how to go
about getting an agreement," Arthur Levin, a representative of the
International Telecommunication Union and the chief organizer of the
meeting, said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Icann controls only one aspect of the Internet: the assignment of Internet
domains and the responsibility to ensure that they match a single Internet
Internet designers argue that Icann thus does not offer an effective
mechanism for controlling the network in the way the more centralized
telephone networks are controlled by the International Telecommunication
"The idea of taking over Icann is a nonstarter," said Robert Kahn, who as a
Pentagon executive oversaw the financing of the original Arpanet and was
later responsible, with Vinton G. Cerf, for the design of the Internet's
crucial software framework, known as TCP/IP. "There is nothing in there to
control, and there are huge issues that the governments of the world really
do need to work on."
Mr. Kahn, who last week received the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Mr.
Cerf, is scheduled to give a keynote presentation in Tunis and said he would
use it to try to bridge the gap between various factions.
The network designers believe that the very structure of the Internet makes
it anathema to the top-down control that governments have traditionally
exercised over earlier communications networks.
Unlike centralized networks with a single point of failure and control, the
Internet was designed to suffer damage and continue to function. That same
quality makes it exceedingly difficult to control or filter.
"The idea of Internet control is an oxymoron," said Robert Taylor, who as a
director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Pentagon during the
1960's initiated the development of the Arpanet.
Having written about the idea of using computers for communications during
the 1960's, Mr. Taylor rejected the idea of basing the network on a
centralized computer and instead adopted a proposal put forward by an
electrical engineer, Wesley A. Clark, to build a network with no center
point of control.
"I didn't trust big centralized organizations," he recalled.
Mr. Taylor backed Mr. Clark's call for the use of specialized computers
called interface message processors, or I.M.P.'s, to route data packets
rather than a centralized system.
Now he suspects that part of the political conflict is about the vast wealth
that has been created by the Internet. "I suspect there is a belief there is
money to be made," he said.
Mr. Cerf, who is now a Google executive and the chairman of Icann, said the
complexities of the underlying technologies made it frustrating to debate
Internet operations in a political setting. As one example, he cited
pressure from many governments to make it possible to render Internet domain
names in all of the world's languages.
"There are certain limitations that are part of the design of the network,
and we are struggling with that," he said. "We're worried that in the zeal
to address localization that people will not be able to communicate any
more. If someone gives you a business card with the e-mail address in
Chinese, what are you to do?"
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