A brief history of American Internet madness

It really is extraordinary how a government’s philosophy can permeate a society.

I have been following and writing about Internet governance for I don’t know how long but most importantly I was in Luxembourg 12 months ago when ICANN met and attempted to understand what on earth four new principles produced by the United States government a week earlier actually meant.

Here then is a brief history of the fall-out from that announcement and of the mad, bad world that the Internet has been forced to live through since then – with particular emphasis on the disgraceful corruption of journalism in what has always been a beacon of free speech and freedom in the world – the United States of America.

The UN report advising how the Internet should be co-ordinated was due out at the end of the Luxembourg meeting but the USG had got hold of an advance copy and quickly produced four “principles” which were then slipped into the next speech Commerce assistant secretary Michael Gallagher was giving. As it turned out, that was the Wireless Communications Association International’s annual meeting at the Marriot Wardman Park Hotel in Washington DC.

Security and stability

The first principle has proved to be the most controversial: “The United States Government intends to preserve the security and stability of the Internet’s Domain Name and Addressing System (DNS). Given the Internet’s importance to the world’s economy, it is essential that the underlying DNS of the Internet remain stable and secure. As such, the United States is committed to taking no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.”

Despite repeated requests, the US government refused to clarify what it actually meant by this at the time. It was clear however that it was playing an oft-used trump card by connecting Net governance to the issue of “security”. It mentioned only Internet security but, as was intended, it made an immediate connection to the wider issue of national security. Since the terrorist attacks in September 2001, to ally anything with security is to guarantee strong and unassailable support from the US public.

US officials then expertly used this unquestioning patriotism to paint a domestic picture of what may happen if anyone but the United States remain in charge of the Internet’s DNS and root zone file. The compliant US media went along with the conceit that moving Net governance away from the USG would automatically mean the United Nations being in control or, even worse, the Chinese. US senators saw a political opportunity and started making noises about the importance of keeping control of the Internet in the US.

The good old days

This whole approach came as something of a shock to the Internet community who had always seen the US government as an extraordinarily helpful and benign influence over the Internet. It was, after all, the US government that had the foresight to push the TCP/IP model despite international consensus pointing to the far more restrictive OSI model. And it was the USG that created ICANN in order to isolate the Internet from governmental and commercial control. It had even stated that it would write itself out of the equation as soon as possible. All that changed when the principles arrived.

The result was that the World Summit on the Information Society became a one-issue process. In October at a pre-Summit meeting in Geneva, the issue of US control became a heated topic of debate. Particularly bizarre from my perspective as a journalist in the room were the US press reports about what was happening and what the issues were. None of the journalists that wrote the reports were actually present at the meeting, with the result that reports bore almost no relation to the reality of the situation.

As one US academic paper [pdf] would later conclude, the fearsome outside influence led to the United States rejecting an EU proposal which in many respects was probably the best model of Internet governance that we may ever see.

World Summit

The skills of the American team, and its head Ambassador David Gross saw the issue follow onto the Tunis Summit itself where two days of extra sessions were held before the Summit itself in order to reach agreement. Again, sat in the boiling Kram conference centre, it was incredible to note how inaccurate the reports from the US media were regarding the discussions. Again, almost none of the journalists were present.

In the end, the UK/EU stepped away from its position when the issue became of such domestic importance that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally sent a letter to UK foreign secretary Jack Straw warning the EU off. And so the US retained its role, much to many people’s clear irritation.

It is possible that the USG felt that would be the end of the matter but, just as everyone had feared, once the Bush Administration had crossed the invisible line and intervened in the issue of Internet governance, there was no going back. With typical bluster, the administration swept aside advice and warnings and decided to do what it wanted.

VeriSign

When VeriSign, a US company with very strong political links, managed to push through two contracts to extend its control of both the .net and, crucially, the .com registries, even US interests cried foul. VeriSign had simply pressed the same “security and stability” buttons that guaranteed a hotlink to the White House and a well-travelled route to high-level political pressure, this time on the DoC and ICANN.

When it was revealed that the administration had then personally intervened to override ICANN and prevent the introduction of the .xxx top-level domain, all the fears about what could go wrong if just one government was allowed to be in charge appeared to be fully justified. With the path already carved out, it was inevitable that there would be more interventions.

To its credit, someone in the Department of Commerce recognised that the system that had been so carefully built up the US government since the 1970s was in danger of falling apart because of ill-conceived ideas of national patriotism and an over-zealous administration. The NTIA made noises about putting the IANA contract (covering the root zone file) up for tender. And then it announced a consultation of what to do over ICANN’s contract when it ran out at the end of September.

Consultation

When the details of that consultation appeared, many were surprised: the questions were good and dug quite deeply. The result of what appeared to be a level of seriousness from the NTIA resulted in hundreds of responses. What the NTIA probably wasn’t aware of however was how strong feeling both within and outside the United States was regarding the importance of pulling control away from one government. Almost two-thirds of responses that were relevant to the inquiry urged the USG to transition its role to an international body.

Naturally, I wrote all this up to disperse its stark message. And in return, received almost exclusively aggressive and mocking comments entirely from US citizens who sought to find 100 different ways to discount the process that their own government had called for. It was only foreign commentators that wanted the US role to change, it was initially argued. When it was pointed out that that wasn’t true, the accusation was that the only requests for a change in the USG’s role came from a malicious email campaign by ICANN-haters. That argument was also easily picked apart and discarded, but still the abuse came.

When just a few days later, a white paper from the DoC lawyer that had originally written ICANN contract back in 1998, and a highly respected US lobbyist said exactly the same thing – that the USG had to transition its role, even providing a “concrete pathway” for it to reach that point, the response was more muted, although I continued to receive abusive comments, some with laughable threats that my biases had been noted down.

The meeting

And then, when the DoC finally admitted last night at its own public meeting that it intended to transition its role, my story has, unbelievably attracted yet more aggression and abuse – exclusively from US citizens – taking exception at perceived slights and biases. DoC officials even admit privately that their biggest problem is not with a transition mechanism or approach but in selling the idea to a US electorate that has learned to equate oversight of the Internet with vital national interests and security.

And throughout that whole process, the US press has failed catastrophically in its job to inform readers about what is going on. Now they are having to try to bridge the chasm between what they said was happening and what the reality now is.

The results are extraordinary.

Some are painting it as the US government thinking about handing over control in its benevolence: “The U.S. government is thinking of starting the process of privatising ICANN, the California-based not-for-profit company that administers the domain names on the internet.”

Others have made the discussion looks more balanced than it really is: “Internet governance experts argued yesterday for and against having the U.S. government hand over the technical coordination and management of the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) completely this year to ICANN, a private, nonprofit organization.”

Getting more bizarre, some have made out ICANN to be unimportant and then mispresented reality by a fake hedging of bets: “The federal government appeared unlikely to relinquish oversight of the system for assigning and managing website domain names after a Commerce Department hearing Wednesday raised broad concerns about giving an obscure Marina del Rey nonprofit unsupervised control.”

Some have gone the corrupt route of boldly stating a stance and then failing to provide any actual evidence otherwise: “Contrary to some reports, things are not about to change. After a meeting at the Commerce Department, Acting Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, John M.R. Kneuer, said that the existing arrangement was likely to continue, at least for another year. ‘There certainly are still strong arguments that there’s more work to be done,’ said Kneuer.”

And some, incredibly, have simply stated the complete opposite of the truth: “At a U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC) hearing on Wednesday to assess whether the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) should be handed over to the private sector, most panelists indicated a preference for continued U.S. government involvement in the management of the Net.”

Like I said at the start, it really is extraordinary how a government’s philosophy can permeate a society.

6 Responses to “A brief history of American Internet madness”


  • I dipped in and out of the meeting webcast yesterday. I didn’t catch the whole thing.

    With that caveat, I have to say I’m certain I heard some argument for continuing US oversight. Possibly not permenant oversight, but definitely continuing beyond September. NSI maybe? Or Go Daddy?

  • Ruiz from GoDaddy. It was qualified support but yes support anyway.

    There is this strange determination at the moment in the US to find the slightest support and then blow it up to an equal size as all the people that were incredibly critical. Check out the ISOC statement – startlingly critical.

    I am staggered by the US media’s blinkered defence of the government no matter what. If the exact same thing had happened here in the UK, the headlines would be: “UK government U-turn over Net ownership”, rather than the virtual definition of bias which is seeking someone (anyone) that agrees with your view and then pretending that’s what everyone said.

    I have the whole event on tape, I may do an objective podcast of the meeting to serve as a future resource.

    Kieren

  • It’s debatable whether it’s a u-turn. If USG’s policy is still that it needs to retain ultimate oversight of the IANA functions, it’s not necessarily saying it wants to give up, in the terms of your article, “control of the internet”.

    In other words, even if it does it cede control over ICANN, it will still have veto power over any root-related decisions ICANN makes. It will still, in essence “rule the root”, and would still be able to use that oversight to kill stuff like .xxx.

    Would it be much different than it is today?

  • It is a big step away from the “principles” and back to where the USG was before WSIS.

    I’ve spoken to a few people at the meeting and everyone is agreed that Kneuer’s statement was very significant. Also ICANN is actively investigating ways of becoming an international body – check out the Pres Strat Committee discussions – ICANN hired the UN’s top legal advisor to provide some information on organisations that work through international law.

    Is the USG removing its control from ICANN significant? Yes, massively so. Think VeriSign dotcom, think .xxx. Think ICANN as an autonomous body. The IANA stance is just a fall-back position to enable the USG to keep face and to make sure that it can control how the overall internet is transitioned. It will move IANA to an international body further down the line.

    Is this different to what the USG was saying in Tunis? Yes, it is an enormous change. What happened yesterday was history in the making. When it comes to government positions, you simply do not get a bigger change in direction without a general election.

    Kieren

  • Fair enough. You track this stuff more closely than I do.

    But I’m not convinced what Kneur said constitutes a USG u-turn. Far from it.

    The 2005 USG policy to take “no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.”

    is surely completely consistent with

    “the technical verification and authorisation of changes to the authoritative root. That is a function of IANA that is limited, extraordinarily technical in nature, and very explicitly tied to security and stability from a technical standpoint.”

    Kneur’s words yesterday are more detailed than the four-principles statement, and as you say, they do clarify the position. But do they reverse the position? A step back? Not in my mind.

  • Hang on – I didn’t say u-turn, I said if this had happened in the UK then the papers would have said “U-turn”.

    Of course the wording isn’t contradictory – these things are written to be as ambiguous and open as possible – that’s been the problem for over a year.

    The fact is the US government has failed to state what it intentions are i.e. what exactly the principles mean in real terms – sparking the Burr/Cade recommendation that the US give a clear statement about its intention and Emily Taylor’s request that the US make its intentions clear – which then sparked the question from Milton Mueller which then caused Kneuer to indicate that the DoC was prepared to hand over ICANN control.

    Between 30 June 2005 and yesterday, all the indications were that the US government was determined to retain control of ICANN *and* the root – just look at the statements in Geneva and Tunis. Yesterday, it made clear it was willing to hand over ICANN.

    Kieren

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