Is Uncle Sam watching you?

July 27, 2005

WHENEVER you surf the web, send emails or download music, an unseen force is at work in the background, making sure you connect to the sites, inboxes and databases you want. The name of this brooding presence? The US government. Some 35 years after the US military invented the internet, the US Department of Commerce retains overall control of the master computers that direct traffic to and from every web and email address on the planet.

But a group convened by the UN last week to thrash out the future of the net is calling for an end to US domination of the net, proposing that instead a multinational forum of governments, companies and civilian organisations is created to run it.

The UN's Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) says US control hinders many developments that might improve it. These range from efforts to give the developing world more affordable net access to coming up with globally agreed and enforceable measures to boost net privacy and fight cybercrime.

US control also means that any changes to the way the net works, including the addition of new domain names such as .mobi for cellphone-accessed sites, have to be agreed by the US, whatever experts in the rest of the world think. The flipside is that the US could make changes without the agreement of the rest of the world.

In a report issued in Geneva in Switzerland on 14 July, the WGIG seeks to overcome US hegemony. "The internet should be run multilaterally, transparently and democratically. And it must involve all stakeholders," says Markus Kummer, a Swiss diplomat who is executive coordinator of the WGIG.

So why is the internet's overarching technology run by the US? The reason is that the net was developed there in the late 1960s by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in a bid to create a communications medium that would still work if a Soviet nuclear strike took out whole chunks of the network. This medium would send data from node to node in self-addressed "packets" that could take any route they liked around the network, avoiding any damaged parts.

Today the internet has 13 vast computers dotted around the world that translate text-based email and web addresses into numerical internet protocol (IP) node addresses that computers understand. In effect a massive look-up table, the 13 computers are collectively known as the Domain Name System (DNS). But the DNS master computer, called the master root server, is based in the US and is ultimately controlled by the Department of Commerce. Because the data it contains is propagated to all the other DNS servers around the world, access to the master root server file is a political hot potato.

Currently, only the US can make changes to that master file. And that has some WGIG members very worried indeed. "It's about who has ultimate authority," says Kummer. "In theory, the US could decide to delete a country from the master root server. Some people expect this to happen one day, even though the US has never abused its position in that way."

Unilateral US action is unlikely, however. The DNS system is managed on behalf of the Department of Commerce by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a not-for-profit company. "Our job is to make sure internet addressing happens stably and securely," says Theresa Swinehart, ICANN's general manager for global partnerships. And it does so, she says, in conjunction with its government advisory committee (GAC), which includes members from 100 countries to ensure diversity of opinion.

Even Kummer admits that ICANN does a good job on achieving international consensus, at least regarding changes to the DNS. "ICANN scores quite highly on involving all stakeholders. Anyone can go to a meeting, take the microphone and give a view," he says. The problem? It's an ad hoc process. And with the internet now a critical global resource, some governments, particularly in developing countries such as China, India and Brazil, want a forum where vast swathes of internet policy- from cybercrime to spam to privacy protection- can be both discussed and acted on.

Only then, they say, can vital non-DNS issues such as the high cost of net connections to many developing countries be made fairer. Right now, the WGIG report notes, internet service providers based in countries that are remote from the internet backbone links- the large "fat pipes" connecting continents- must pay the full cost of connecting to these networks. This can be prohibitively expensive for developing nations and there is no "appropriate and effective global internet governance mechanism to resolve it".

The WGIG put forward a number of options for change, all of which include enhancing the roles of ICANN and the GAC or the formation of a new all-embracing internet policy body that would be in charge of ICANN instead of the US. The WGIG's proposals will now go to the vote at the International Telecommunication Union's World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia this November.

Whatever the WGIG decides, it will have a tough time changing the US government's opinion. Only last month, US assistant secretary of commerce Michael Gallagher reasserted America's claim to the heart of the net. "The US 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 authorising changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file." Battle, it seems, is about to begin.
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THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE ISSUE: 30 JULY 2005

Author: Paul Marks

New Scientist

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