Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- More than 5 billion additional people will connect to the Internet in the next 20 years, and most of the newcomers will not speak English. This next generation will use the Internet in ways we cannot imagine, and its innovations will change the world.
But if the debate in Washington over the creation of new domain names goes the wrong way, Internet policy won’t help the free flow of speech online. The U.S. can help by having the courage to stay the course.
At issue is the Internet’s crabbed naming system. Right now there are only 16 possible addresses in cyberspace to the right of the dot -- so-called generic top-level domains such as .com and .net -- that don’t refer to countries or territories, such as .jp or .uk. They all use the Latin alphabet. For the last six years, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, has been working to address the need for additional top-level domains while protecting brands and consumers around the world. ICANN, a private, nonprofit organization with an international board, is finally ready to go ahead and add to the number of generic top-level domain names -- including more names in non-Latin characters. The program is scheduled to start next week.
But it’s not that simple. After the U.S. Senate and House hearings about new domain names last month, the Federal Trade Commission warned ICANN that its “dramatic introduction” of new names “poses significant risks to consumers” by increasing the risk of online fraud, and would result in greater costs for businesses to protect their brands online. A series of letters from members of Congress has flooded into ICANN, all predicting doom if its plan proceeds. What’s going on?
What’s happening is that a group of people and companies (led by the Association of National Advertisers) that isn’t happy with the results of the ICANN process is taking a second bite at the apple by asking Congress and U.S. federal agencies for help. How ICANN and the U.S. respond to this attempt at relitigation will have a major effect on how other difficult Internet policy decisions get made.
This is a preview of a battle we will see again and again over the next decade: Should Internet policy be made by governments working together with other stakeholders, as in the ICANN model, or by governments alone? Our shared digital future requires nothing less than a new model of governance, and ICANN is an experiment in applying a stakeholder-governance model to a limited set of issues: policies having to do with IP addresses and domain names. We need to preserve that model as we confront other, larger issues.
Let’s consider the 5 billion people who aren’t yet online. Human rights advocates say that the advent of the Internet has been the most important development in the field for the last 50 years. It’s important that the next 5 billion online have access to a globally functioning Internet that allows for freely flowing information. The model of governance that we choose for Internet policy should prioritize global interoperability and openness.
There are plenty of regimes out there, though, that would like to see much greater governmental control over Internet content. One efficient way to do that would be to put the names and numbers that allow the Internet to function under the direct control of the International Telecommunications Union, which is part of the United Nations. The risk is that only governments have a vote in the ITU -- freedom of speech proponents and other advocacy groups would not get a fair hearing. That’s why the U.S., acting as a steward for the rest of the world and reasoning that openness leads to growth and democracy, agreed in 1998 that names and numbers should be under the authority of a private-sector organization, ICANN.
A Careful Process
ICANN operates by consensus, like many other Internet standard-setting organizations. Its processes take awhile, but ICANN brings together government representatives, businesspeople, academics and individuals. (I was a member of ICANN’s board of directors from 2005 to 2008.) ICANN’s goal is to take into account everyone’s interests while not letting any one sector dominate the proceedings.
It is this process that, after six years, has emerged with a careful, layered application procedure for new top-level domains that strongly protects the interests of corporate brand holders. This process has multiple belts and numerous suspenders. As the Department of Commerce pointed out this month, ICANN has not done a good job educating the American companies that oppose the plan about the “purpose and scope of the program as well as the mechanisms available to address their concerns.” Names suggested by new applicants can be challenged by a huge range of actors: governments, anyone with a confusingly similar brand and anyone who says that the name is “contrary to general principles of international law for morality and public order.” There are high barriers to applying, including steep application fees of as much as $185,000, substantial technical requirements and a limited application window, that will sharply narrow the number of resulting new names.
ICANN’s policy isn’t perfect. But the introduction of new top-level domains will lead to wider choices and lower prices for consumers buying names down the line, and will provide a welcome pressure valve for communities around the world that want recognition in the namespace at the top level. (Right now, for example, there is one globally recognized .net, but there is nothing to stop an irritated group of people from setting up a non-interoperable list of their own top-level domains with a different .net.) Yes, countries often (regrettably) filter what their citizens can see, but they don’t set up entirely separate naming systems. There is only one google.com. You may not be able to get to it reliably in Syria, but Syria hasn’t set up its own .com system that is different from the rest of the world’s. Under ICANN’s plan, before too long and with regular checkups along the way, the creation of new top-level domains will become boring and routine.
A Crucial Time
We have to get this right, because this is a critical time in the history of the Internet. Autocratic regimes would like much greater governmental control over Internet content. If the ITU takes control of the plumbing of the Internet, they will be better able to do so. In June, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with Hamadoun Toure, secretary general of the ITU. According to a transcript of the meeting subsequently published by the Russian government, Putin said: “We are thankful to you for the ideas that you have proposed for discussion. One of them is establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union.”
This shortsighted U.S. fight over new names could be extremely damaging to the Internet’s future. Russia, China, and other regimes already claim that ICANN is an instrument of the U.S. government. When critics attack ICANN, and encourage the federal government to step in, they play directly into the ITU’s plans. This may lead to many other nations joining in a call for government control of Internet resources around the world. The result could be a global Internet content policy effectively made by governments that are most interested in restricting access to information. And that would be bad for the 5 billion citizens of the world yet to connect to the Internet.
(Susan Crawford is a Bloomberg View columnist and a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School. In 2009, she was a special assistant to President Barack Obama for science, technology and innovation policy. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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