Welcome to the Debate Over Internet Governance:
A Snapshot in the Year 2000
This website was prepared as a final project for the course “Internet
& Society: The Technologies and Politics of Control” at Harvard
Law School. This site aims to do that which might seem
impossible in a medium that changes so quickly and so dramatically
– to freeze a particular moment in the debate over internet governance. [Note: as of May 2005, the legal landscape has continued to change. Here is a link with more recent information about internet governance]
moment we seek to capture here is no ordinary moment in the development
of the internet. It has
been called nothing less than “the Internet’s constitutional moment." As the internet’s promise as a transformative
cultural, economic, and political phenomenon has become more widely
recognized, increasing attention has been paid to the question
of whether we need internet governance and, if so, in what form. Do we need a formal governance structure or will informal means of governance
- namely behavioral norms established by the internet community
or by the code itself - suffice?
some level, even those most wary of formal governance for the
internet recognize the need for central administration of some
of the internet’s technical aspects.
The assignment of IP addresses represents one such widely
recognized aspect. What
makes this debate so engaging and controversial is that the distinction
between technical coordination and public policy-making in practice
is much less clear than in theory.
The blurring of this distinction has created an opportunity
for broad reflection on what kind of decision-making processes
there should be in cyberspace. Does responsibility for assigning names and
numbers imply the power to create a dispute resolution system? Does it also imply the power to sanction those
who do not follow mandated procedure by denying them a domain
name? If the answer to both questions is necessarily
yes, then who should have a voice in creating the policies the
internet community will be made to follow and in determining questions
that have increasingly large political and financial implications.
nothing else, what is clear is that the decisions made today about
the technical architecture of the internet and the body which
will administer that architecture will shape the internet’s development
for years to come.
creation of the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers – known
widely as ICANN – in November 1998 has given the debate on internet
governance a new focus. ICANN’s
mission is to administer the allocation of the IP address space
and to manage the domain name system and the root server system
functions. ICANN represents
the U.S. Government’s commitment to private sector, self-regulation
of the internet. The core
principles articulated in ICANN’s foundational documents – the
White Paper and the
Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the U.S. Department
of Commerce – are stability, competition, private sector bottom-up
coordination, and representation.
new and distinct, ICANN is not the first attempt to address the
problem of assigning domain names and IP addresses. In 1958, the U.S. Government began funding
a research project called ARPANET that would lead to the development
of the internet. The Department
of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) established
and managed this project until the 1980s.
By contract with DARPA and in affiliation with the Stanford
Research Institute (SRI), a graduate student named Jon Postel
at the University of California at Los Angeles undertook the tasks
of assigning blocks of numerical IP addresses to regional registries
and of maintaining a list of the host names and addresses. Postel also maintained a list of the documents
produced by researchers working on ARPANET and coordinated the
Request for Comment process.
As these tasks became increasingly unwieldy to manage single-handedly,
Postel delegated additional administrative aspects of the list’s
maintenance to SRI. These functions became collectively known as
the Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA).
By 1992, the National Science Foundation (NSF) had assumed
responsibility for coordinating and funding the management of
the non-military part of the internet infrastructure.
After soliciting competitive proposals, the NSF entered
into an agreement that allowed Network Solutions Inc. (NSI) to
maintain the authoritative database of internet registries and
to register domain names in the key top level domains – the .com,
.org, and .net gTLDs.
the expiration of NSI’s contract with the U.S. Government neared
in September 1998 and pressure for changing the existing system
of managing the Domain Name System (DNS) began to build.
As the internet became increasingly more commercial and
more global, it no longer seemed appropriate for U.S. research
agencies to manage the DNS and to grant monopoly status through
contractual arrangements. Prior
to this, however, the internet community had already begun serious
debate about the future of the DNS.
In May 1996, Jon Postel proposed the creation of multiple,
exclusive, competing top-level domain name registries.
Each of up to 50 new domain name registries would have
the exclusive right to register names in up to three new top-level
domains. The controversy sparked by this proposal led IANA and the Internet
Society (ISOC) to organize the International Ad Hoc Committee
(IAHC) to resolve DNS management questions.
The IAHC proposed the establishment of seven new gTLDs
to be operated on a nonexclusive basis by a consortium of new
private domain name registrars that was to be overseen by a council
of stakeholder representatives. On July 1, 1997, President Clinton directed
the Secretary of Commerce to privatize the DNS in a way that increased
competition and facilitates international participation in its
management. This debate culminated in the U.S. Department
of Commerce’s White Paper in June 1998. The White Paper called on the internet community to establish non-profit
consensus organization to take over responsibility for registering
names and numbers on the internet.
November 25, 1998, the U.S. Department of Commerce officially
recognized ICANN as the institution envisioned by the White Paper.
brief existence has been anything but uncontroversial. Critics offer two main arguments against ICANN.
First, the process which ICANN has used to make decisions
– on everything from the appointment of the Board of Directors
and fees for registering domain names to its recent Registry Agreement
with Network Solutions and its adoption of the Registrar Accreditation
Agreement, despite serious objections to the latter – has been
attacked as secretive and anti-democratic. ICANN’s interim President
Mike Roberts has acknowledged that most of the criticism of ICANN
relates to “process” and not specific decisions ICANN has taken. Second, critics charge that ICANN has already
exceeded its scope of authority and threatens to continue to extend
its reach to issues over which it has no legitimate control. If ICANN succeeds in its immediate mission,
then it will be the institution most well-placed to take on a
broader governance role in the future as questions about privacy
and protecting intellectual property become even more pressing. This being so, the fundamental concerns about establishing an open
and representative process are reinforced.
The idea for this website
grew from the class [names] listserv that provided a forum for students
to discuss internet related issues with a variety of participants
– ranging from techies and lawyers to academics and entrepreneurs. As soon as the [names] listserv was active,
it became clear that one particular topic generated the most passionate
postings: the debate about internet governance. The sheer volume of mail to the [names] listserv was impressive,
as was the exacting attention paid by each participant to what others
the volume of responses, the level of detail involved in the postings,
and the starkly contrasting views of events offered by the [names]
listserv participants made it difficult for those who are just learning
about internet governance to understand exactly what is at stake,
where we are in the process of creating a governance structure for
the internet, and even whether anything we’ve seen thus far is accurately
described as governance. By
asking some of those who have observed the debate most closely to
reflect not simply on the detailed issues up for debate but on the
debate itself, this site aims to develop a broader understanding
of internet governance as a descriptive and normative matter.
To that end, the interviews conducted for this project do not focus
on many of the specific issues that are currently on ICANN’s agenda
– such as the addition of new gTLDs, the implementation of the Uniform
Dispute Resolution Policy, or the formation of the At-Large Membership.
Instead, the interviews seek to develop an understanding
of the underlying dynamics of the debate.
The participants have been asked to define and to assess
the impact of some of the key concepts in this debate – such as
consensus and governance. They
have also been asked to look to the future – to assess what kind
of governance the internet will need, to think about alternatives
to ICANN, and to suggest ways to improve ICANN’s structure.
In doing so, they reveal their own philosophies about governance
and about humanity, as well as their own ambitions for contributing
to the internet we will all use tomorrow.
assembling the list of participants, our priority was to include
a variety of different perspectives about the governance debate,
rather than to serve more conventional
understandings of diversity. Even judging by that goal, our selection
is necessarily imperfect since there are many more voices in the
debate than could be included here. Nevertheless, we hope that
this site serves merely as a starting point for further discussion
and that new voices and perspectives will be encouraged to join.
Although the [names]
listserv provides an essential background to this site, its content
does not appear here. We
felt that it would be unfair to those who posted writings to lift
their words out of context. Few
– if any – postings stand alone because writers were frequently
responding to the precise language and content of text from other
posters whose identity can be difficult to identify.
Nevertheless, we encourage all visitors to this site to
archives of the Internet & Society [names] list to see
what the participants in this project and others have written.
THE IMPACT OF THE TERM GOVERNANCE
central topic that this site addresses is governance. Widespread adoption of the term governance – even by those who say
that we don’t have internet governance and we certainly don’t
need it – says much about where the debate is today.
Not so long ago – perhaps less than five years ago – the
kind of passionate debate about internet governance that is now
taking place would have been unimaginable.
With the formation of ICANN and the widespread realization
of the economic potential of the internet, the debate about administering
the internet’s technical architecture has been reframed as a question
of political legitimacy. In this context, calls for greater openness
and for a more representative process have resonated with ever
A written exchange between
Esther Dyson, Chairman of the ICANN Board of Directors, and the
consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Jamie Love of the Consumer Project
on Technology provides a particularly compelling example of the
way in which the reframing of the debate about ICANN as a question
about governance has changed the tenor and the politics of the debate.
In responding to a series of questions posed by Nader and
Love, Dyson begins her
letter by saying,
White Paper articulates no Internet governance role for ICANN,
and the Initial Board shares that (negative) view. Therefore,
ICANN does not "aspire to address" any Internet governance
issues; in effect, it governs the plumbing, not the people. It
has a very limited mandate to administer certain (largely technical)
aspects of the Internet infrastructure in general and the Domain
Name System in particular.
goes on to discuss the role of Network Solutions Inc. in this
debate and, in doing so, reveals her perspective on the reframing
of the debate,
course, "I want to protect my monopoly" is hardly an
attractive slogan, and so NSI uses the langauge of democracy instead.
In addition, it encourages and supports others who have a variety
of reasons -- economic, philosophical or political -- to be unhappy
with the way the community consensus has formed. Of course, many
of these people are sincere in their concerns about the transparency
of ICANN's operations and their interest in fostering public debate
about its activities - as you are. But ICANN's goals and its actions
are in fact the result of public debate and consensus - though
not of unanimity.
Dyson’s general point on the use of the language of democracy is
well taken. This site aims
to look beyond the term governance to explore why and how the term
has come to shape the debate. A
fundamental question about the continuing debate about internet
governance emerges: is it the natural consequence of the development
of the internet or was the terminology of the debate transformed
in order to transform the debate itself?
We hope that your visit to this site is informative and that when
you leave, your views on the internet governance debate are refreshed
by new perspectives, if not by definitive solutions.
We welcome your comments on the site and on the topic of
internet governance on the message board.
Paik is a second year student at Harvard Law School from Woodland
Stark is a second year law student at Harvard Law School from
New York City.
authors would like to thank John Wilbanks of the Berkman Center
for his technical expertise and his endless patience.