Who Controls the Web? A Brief History of the Internet

The short answer is that the government of the USA effectively controls the Internet today.

But for how long? How long will the rest of the world go along with the American way?

Let’s start with a bit of Internet history. Then towards the end of this article I’ll take a look at the Internet horizon.

The Internet’s origins date back to the 1960’s. At that time there was no “World Wide Web”. The initial step appears to have been a research project set up by the United States Department of Defence. Between 1968 and 1984 ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), was managed for the US government by BBN Planet.

The Arpanet network grew to include other government research as well as academic facilities, so that by 1984 about 1000 hosts were connected to the Internet.

Then starting in 1990 the Internet underwent explosive growth thanks to the invention of the “World Wide Web” by Tim Berners-Lee, an English computer scientist at CERN (the pan-European particle physics laboratory) in Geneva, Switzerland.

In 1993, the US National Science Foundation was given responsibility for the Internet. They created InterNic, made up of three organizations: AT&T for handling database services, Network Solutions (now part of Verisign Corporation) for all host, domain name registration and IP assignments, and General Atomics for dealing with information services.

Handing out responsibilty for domain registration to Network Solutions, was then widely regarded as the privatisation of the Internet. Network Solutions’ monopoly for registering all .COM, .NET and .ORG domains, allowed them to charge as much as $35 per domain per year, a very high fee compared with today, when most domain names are sold for less than $10!

However, we mustn’t forget that despite this apparent privatisation, the USA government, through the Department of Commerce, continued their overall control of the Internet.

In 1998, during the Clinton administration, the US Department of Commerce set up ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Despite being largely comprised of international Internet Society members, the Department of Commerce maintained a veto over ICANN root server database modifications, and the contract allowed Network Solutions to continue to manage domain name registration, IP and related Internet services. However there were veiled promises to relinquish control of the Internet’s Domain Name and Addressing System (DNS) and transfer it to an international body in due course.

Although ICANN was apparently set up to ease international concerns over the USA’s control over the Internet, it was never fully endorsed by those responsible for top-level country domains, i.e. by the rest of the world at large.

In recent years demand for non-English domain names (so-called multi-lingual domains) has been high outside the United States and continues to grow relentlessly. There is also an increasing desire by countries to gain some measure of control over top level domains assigned to them.

Simultaneously there appears to be increasing international impatience with the Internet’s governing body, ICANN’s snail-pace progress on permitting registration of domain names containing characters other than the currently authorized 37 characters of the Latin alphabet, plus 10 numerals and a hyphen.

Despite years of ‘work’, no fool-proof (or rather fraud-proof) system for domain names using Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and other non-Latin characters has been devised by the USA controlled body (ICANN).

The so-called “Unicode” system, which has been tried for this purpose, is said to be flaky because it lacks uniqueness. Security experts warned earlier this year (2005) of a flaw whereby characters that look alike can have two separate Unicode codes and thus appear to the computer as different. This would open a new door to Internet fraudsters.

In a 2004 speech, European Commissioner Erkki Liikanen encouraged more European countries to sign up to the Country Code Names Supporting Organisation (ccNSO). This is ICANN’s supporting body for non-US countries world-wide. He called ICANN “a unique experiment in self-regulation” before stating, “The expectation among governments at the outset was that ICANN would provide a neutral platform for consensus-building…. It was also hoped that ICANN would provide a way for the US government to withdraw from its supervisory role. In this way, we could achieve a greater internationalisation and privatisation of certain key functions. It has yet to fully deliver on either of these objectives.”

However, in July 2005, under the George W. Bush administration, the US Department of Commerce reversed earlier policy, making clear it intended to retain control of the Internet’s root servers indefinitely. It had been due to give up control in September 2006 when its contract with ICANN ended. This article by Kieren McCarthy “Bush Administration Annexes Internet” provides more detail.

It appears that the United Nations has been considering calling for the handing over of elements of Internet control to a UN body, possibly under the umbrella of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

And on 4th July 2005, The New York Times reported that “Brazil, India, Syria, China and other countries have proposed that an international body take over from ICANN. Last month, the European Union called for an ‘international consensus’ on Internet governance, without specifying the role of governments, the private sector or ICANN.”

It may well be that it was calls for UN control that caught the Bush administration’s attention which triggered their announcement.

Be that as it may… the multilingual domain name issue and the question of country domain names has been around for years. It won’t go away. ICANN knows demand for multilingual domain names is strong and growing. Yet ICANN appears to have achieved little to resolve the issue so far.

Consequently there is a growing resentment by countries that on the one hand the USA is keeping all the Internet eggs in its own basket, while at the same time appearing to dawdle on international domain name issues.

Maybe that is understandable when multi-lingual domain names hardly touches on US interests. But if ICANN does not resolve multilingual domain issues soon, more tension is likely on the Internet horizon.

Although the US administration has declared that it “will work with the international community to find appropriate ways to address Internet governance issues,” the real message other countries are reading seems clear: The US perceives the Internet as an important US strategic resource and a potential weapon against America’s rivals, over which the Bush administration doesn’t intend to share control.

As I write in July 2005, the Internet is still in adolescence. As it further develops, its control will hopefully be in the shared interests of all Internet users world wide.

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