Elon University

The power struggle over critical Internet resources; a brief explanation of the players behind the issue

November 15, 2007
By Janna Quitney Anderson, Director of Imagining the Internet and Assistant Professor of Communications, Elon University

IGF opening panel discussion hall photoRio de Janeiro, Brazil – When the first network was cobbled together by a group of guys just trying to figure out how to make computers talk to each other, it was called ARPANET. It was put together by scientists employed by corporations and universities working under a U.S. Defense Department communications initiative in the 1960s.

How has it expanded in less than 40 years? In 1973, it included 30 computers, and now the United Nations reports that 1.2 billion people enjoy regular access to the Internet. JupiterResearch reports that by 2011 about 22 percent of the world’s growing population or more than 1.6 billion will be online.

As the Internet grows, various layers are continually added to make it useful while also increasing its speed and ability to carry data – its architecture and the intricacies of its operation are becoming exponentially more complex.

A number of different global groups are involved in controlling quality and interoperability of the various layers of the internet and such control also equates with a great deal of power.

That is why the issue of critical internet resources is at the top of the agenda here at the second annual Internet Governance Forum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the forum facilitated by the United Nations to allow the people of the world to come together to discuss the future of the Internet.

The CIR issue is controversial and discussion of it is always contentious because the people with control over these resources have control over the Internet.

When the major themes of the first IGF in Athens in 2006 were announced – security, diversity, openness, and access – there were many people in the world community who wished to address CIR. But because this particular discussion can stop all other progress to solve important problems and thus turn a civil meeting into a zero-net-gain power struggle, it was left off the Athens agenda.

The Working Group on Internet Governance, the international group that established the plan for the UN-facilitated series of Internet Governance Forums, took great pains in the crafting of its description of critical Internet resources:

Issues relating to infrastructure and the management of critical Internet resources, including administration of the domain name system and IP addresses, administration of the root-server system, technical standards, peering and interconnection, telecommunications infrastructure, innovative and convergent technologies and multilingualization.

When the Advisory Group appointed by the UN secretary-general to plan the Rio IGF met to discuss its agenda, they decided to program in discussion of CIR. In politics, power is everything. Because most of the initial resources of the Internet were invented and developed in the U.S., much of the control over and administration of the architecture and the central elements of the Internet are still retained by the U.S., and many of the root servers key to the Internet are located in the U.S.

While some participants at the IGF say the U.S. influence is “benign,” and report that the government of the U.S. rarely exercises any power over the network other than to retain its higher percentage of control, there are many people who believe no one nation should have this much authority over a worldwide communications tool.

There are many other issues tied to this aspect of Internet governance – such as innovation and convergence – but each time these otherwise amicable people talk about critical Internet resources, they get into a repeating loop of barely concealed anger as they dig in their heels and doggedly hold their position.

Over the past two decades, the decision-making organizations in charge of the Internet have grown in number and in international make-up. But because the Internet has become a global phenomenon of significant impact, there are many who would like to see the US relinquish even more of its control.

So who’s in charge of the Internet, and how are decisions made about it?

The Internet Society, an international, non-profit charitable organization, was founded – mostly by internet engineers and scientists – in 1992 as a way for stakeholders from all over the world to come together in harmony to plan the future of the most amazing communications network ever. Its motto: “To assure the open development, evolution and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world.”

The membership includes everyone from the ingenious, dedicated inventors of the Internet’s working systems to average Internet users. Its leaders met Wednesday in Rio to update anyone interested in its work and answer their questions at an open forum.

The Internet Society helps promote the founding principles of the Internet as an open network of networks built for innovation, creativity and economic opportunity. It includes as subgroups the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Engineering Task Force – the people who built and who work to continue to develop the Internet. It includes many people who work tirelessly on initiatives to bring more connection to the world. As many of its leaders point out, a major goal is to help the next billion people get online.

In 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – also known as ICANN – was created as a non-profit agency that is assigned to manage domain names and IP addresses. It holds public meetings and encourages public participation in its processes, and it has six subgroups that specialize in different areas of this area of Internet governance. ICANN also hosted an open forum at IGF this week, and its members were highly active in announcing the new internationalized domain names that are expected to allow more people to use their own languages in IP addresses.

The Internet Society and its Internet Architecture Board and Internet Engineering Task Force and ICANN work with many other groups, including the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Wide Web Consortium, the International Organization for Standardization, the International Chamber of Commerce, the United Nations and governments and industry, to maintain and continue to build the Internet.

Bringing continuous input together from so many sources in so many places is incredibly complex, and it will continue to gain in complexity, however, the Internet has been and continues to be a resource that operates best with multi-stakeholder cooperation and as little centralized control as possible.

It’s tough to get people from varied cultural, social and economic backgrounds to come together and make decisions as complex and multi-layered as those now being discussed in regard to the revolutionary communications tool we call the Internet. The annual IGF is providing people from all walks of life from many parts of the world the chance to meet and talk things over.

The Internet Society’s official position is that IGF should focus on expanding access to the Internet, sharing ideas for best practices and expertise with others, and knowledge-sharing and bridge-building between civil society, government, business and non-governmental organizations – avoiding political arguments.

One thing is certain: Continued successful globalization of the Internet will build on multi-stakeholder cooperation with highly distributed control. The integrity, stability and security of the Internet as it grows in speed, scope and density is dependent on continued innovation and international participation.