Net goes beyond U.S. domain

It's time for the U.S. government to wake up to a new cyber reality--one that is inherently global and depends on an international audience to continue functioning.

commentary One of the most hotly debated issues today revolves around who should hold the remote control to the Web.

Today, the root servers--the nerve center of the Internet--are under the charge of the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a nonprofit entity which many consider to come under the purview of the U.S. government. Through ICANN, Web addresses are matched to their corresponding IP addresses.

The Bush administration in July decided it will not hand over control of the Internet to any other organization.

But the United Nations is calling for the U.S. to relinquish its control to an international body. The U.S isn't budging.

Bryan Tan, a tech lawyer with Singapore-based law firm Keystone Law, says there's currently no law to force the United States to give up their power.

So how is it that governments have the ability to deregulate a market such as the telecommunications industry, and force monopolies to abide by new pro-competition legislation?

Tan notes that the two scenarios are different.

"I don't think the same analogy can be drawn here because private organizations are always subjected to the laws of the country in which they operate," he explains. "And international law is not always as easily enforced."

I couldn't agree more. Case in point, the U.S. chose to proceed with its war on Iraq despite strong urging from the United Nations not to do so.

In the cyber world today, however, Tan notes that the most blatant example of the U.S. exerting its control over the Internet is the recent case where the Bush administration raised objections to the proposed addition of .xxx URLs.

While some have used this as an example of U.S. interference, others could also argue that they were doing what is morally the right thing, he says.

Tan adds: "I'm okay for status quo, for now, because the U.S. hasn't done anything that diabolical or controversial with its powers."

Associate professor Ang Peng Hwa, dean of School of Communication and Information at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU), believes control should be given to an international entity, even if the United States is doing an alright job for now. Ang is also a member of the Working Group on Internet Governance, a role appointed by Kofi Anan, secretary-general of the United Nations.

Technically, the United States is doing fine, he says. "But the fundamental issue is that ICANN is a Californian company under the authority of the U.S. Department of Commerce. What happens if the U.S. government is in a conflict with another government? Can that country be taken offline?

"If the United Nations, which represent the world's governments, are to keep away from the Internet, which government is keeping watch? It's the United States. Is that politically acceptable? Of course not," he adds.

The debate has incited a flurry of feedback and comments from ZDNet Asia readers.

One of them, D. Lee Sebantes, writes: "No one nation can or should control the Internet. It should never have become regulated, commercialized nor have some of its chief components/processes patented. I don't want the U.S. or the U.N. controlling it. Put it back into the hands of grassroots entities and pure scientific research."

Ang supports the establishment of a forum where countries can "discuss and coordinate" issues, and one which does not have decision-making powers.

"Just network, discuss and coordinate," he says. "There are areas that governments can usefully coordinate without necessarily stifling the Net."

Tan suggests the U.S. would probably reconsider its position if pressured to do so.

"Apart from building our own Internet, which obviously isn't so feasible, I think peer pressure is the only way to move the U.S. out of Internet control," he says. "The fact remains that the U.S. still owns most of the Web sites that are being accessed worldwide today."

Ang believes it would take sense and rationality, rather than peer pressure, for the United States to relinquish some control. An alternative to the U.S. dominating control is a fragmented or parallel Internet, he notes, and everyone loses out in this scenario--particularly the U.S. companies.

A ZDNet Asia reader agrees, noting that the Internet would be no good to anyone if it fragmented into separate bits that are controlled by different countries or regions.

"The Internet is global, who cares if the U.S. 'invented' it…it does not mean (they) own it. A Canadian invented the telephone, so should Canada be the sole country to 'own' all telephone networks? No," he adds. "The U.S. only built the Internet framework in the U.S., the rest of the world built the other 90 percent."

Ang notes that the idea to create a new global body such as an Asian conglomerate, to build a completely new Internet may be feasible, but he adds that this would be "the worst possible outcome" for the World Summit on the Information Society.

He says this could spill over into the real world and ignite potential conflicts such as trade wars.

Supporters of free speech, including one U.S. senator, are also lobbying to keep the Internet within U.S. control in order to protect the freedom of speech and protection of intellectual property.

In a recent interview with Foreign Policy in the United States, Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School, rebuffs claims that moving power away from ICANN could give countries such as China, Iran or North Korea, an avenue to censor or control the Internet.

In fact, he argues that it would provide these countries more flexibility to censor content without affecting what the rest of the world can view, if the root servers are jointly controlled by China and the U.S.

ZDNet Asia reader Mike Simmons writes: "If the Internet is international, it should be administered internationally--not by any one nation. There are many people around the world who would consider the U.S. an oppressive nation."

Would the United States still maintain that the status quo suits them just fine if it was China or India that held the strings to the Internet instead? I think not.

The U.S. government needs to understand that, despite its best intentions, it's natural for foreign governments to question its objectives--just as it questions Iran and North Korea's motives in the nuclear weapons debate. The Internet discussion may not deal with as life-threatening issues, but it has thrown up serious social problems such as pornography and pedophilia which can only be addressed by an international audience.

It's time the U.S. government recognize a new cyber reality--one that is inherently global and depends on international participation to continue thriving.

Eileen Yu is editor of ZDNet Asia.