People, power, names, numbers and roots
November 12, 2007
By Janna Quitney Anderson, Director of Imagining the Internet and Assistant Professor of Communications, Elon University
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – The Internet is absolutely kooky. A bunch of smart people began tinkering with making this tool for connection work – first a few of them, and then thousands and thousands of them – linked some computers together, just improving things gradually together by trial and error.
The Internet began its life as a connection between a couple of nodes – two computers communicating in the most rudimentary way in the late 1960s. By 1973 the entire network connected just 30 institutions. In less than 40 years it grew and grew as more people all over the world began to work together to achieve an Internet connection. Now more than 1.2 billion people enjoy regular access to the Internet, and the big question at the 2007 Internet Governance Forum is: “How can we find a way to connect the next billion people – and how can we eventually connect everyone in the world?”
Today’s Internet is big business, it is empowering, it has what seems to be an unlimited potential for improvement in the future. We have high expectations for it because we have come so incredibly far in such a short time. Two of the men who were there at the beginning, Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf, the co-inventors of the Internet Protocol, were out-and-out stars of a panel session at the Internet Governance Forum Monday afternoon in Rio.
The panel was all about Critical Internet Resources. What falls under CIR? According to Cerf, it is more than the architecture that provides Internet service and the many organizations that work together as independent, international units to run it.
“ICANN is a multistakeholder structure which was born that way,” he said in his opening remarks. “It has evolved increasing mechanisms for involving interested stakeholders in policymaking in regard to the domain-naming system and Internet address assignment.
“It has created regional At-Large organizations in order to inform discussion on public policy coming from civil society. Almost any resource that is important to the Internet becomes critical at one time or another. For example, having electric power available. Having a technical workforce available to help you build and operate pieces of Internet. Having a highly open standards-making process is a critical Internet resource.”
He continued: “I hope we don’t lose track of the breadth of resources that are needed to successfully implement and operate this global Internet.”
Cerf’s statement was a proactive response to his accurate expectation that instead of discussing ALL critical Internet resources, people in the room at IGF would focus on scrutinizing and second-guessing the activities and composition of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Controversy over the Internet domain-naming system and the positioning and control of root servers generally consumes most of the public discussion of CIR to the disappointment of people who would like to address additional topics of importance. But those discussions and the natural evolution of the Internet have spurred many positive changes at ICANN over the past year, and ICANN officials assured everyone at the forum that change will continue, as governments are removed as much as possible from its processes. The best way to find out more about ICANN’s new initiatives is to visit the ICANN site and read updates from ICANN bloggers for more information.
The IGF CIR panel included many illustrious participants, all of whom made excellent contributions, but the audience hung on the words of Cerf and Kahn, the Internet pioneers who have won worldwide acclaim and respect for their inventiveness and their continued dedication to making a difference in assuring that the future of their IP invention would be one to benefit the public good.
Many topics of interest came up… It was proposed that convergence and accelerating change will bring a day when ICANN and ITU might merge, or perhaps completely disappear and be replaced by a completely new governance organization, and a variety of panelists, from Milton Mueller of Syracuse University to Cerf himself agreed to this possibility. Mueller also proposed that “within two years” ICANN could be “denationalized,” adding, “We would like to remove the Internet from geopolitical contention as much as possible.”
But the attention remained on Kahn and Cerf. While Cerf was main a panelist and received the bulk of audience questions, fielding them pleasantly and with a great amount of charm, Kahn played a smaller but equally important role as a discussant.
“I think it’s really important to see this in a setting of time,” Kahn said. “The Internet has really had a complex evolution over the past 30-some years. Vint and I pretty much had free rein to go ahead and try what we wanted. What we did was spend quite a bit of our time over the past 20 years systematically working to get government out of the business of running the Internet. There is very little left that has any direct government tie – it’s mainly the private sector that is running the Internet today.”
Kahn said there is too much focus on ICANN. He said we should be paying more attention to what’s “going on in our computers,” referring to the fact that companies that build the hardware and software build in certain elements and capabilities that we often aren’t aware of, and that is problematic, and our Internet connections allow people to surreptitiously place software and malware on them.
Kahn also defended the quality and future potential of the Internet he and Cerf helped build. “There’s been quite a bit of work on developing something called the ‘clean slate’ Internet,” he said. “If anything, it’s been working too well if we’re getting all this spam and viruses. We don’t need a brand new one, we just need to figure out how to deal with those problems. That doesn’t mean we won’t need new architecture in the future, but there are various ways that can be explored.”
He endorsed the evolution of ICANN, saying, “I hope ICANN continues to flourish going forward, because it’s one of many options, not the only one.”
The Critical Internet Resources discussion was interesting. It was a civilized discussion about important issues, but it didn’t cover as much ground as it might have. One more extremely important observation of the CIR session that should be mentioned: At the head table of 12 panelists and discussants, there was just one woman and just one non-caucasian person. Something has to be done about inclusion.
Kahn and Cerf are a great one-two punch. It’s easy to see how their combination of intelligence and humanity has helped the Internet continue to be a force for global good. Their spirit is contagious, and they are to be congratulated for their tireless work to continue to channel this creation of connection in a positive direction.