Internet governance – just who does what?

By Tom O’Hagan

Well it seems there is a bit of a fight going on over the Internet. Actually, I think it has been happening behind the scenes for some time, but the issue of who is really in charge was the topic of one of our Seminar Series which ran last month and I have to say the topic is fascinating. In a slightly unnerving kind of way.

Use of the Internet is seeing phenomenal growth; LINX, who presented at the Seminar, indicated that they see up to 3tb/s going over their network – and that only accounts for 80% of UK traffic. And it won’t stop there.

I think we have a tendency to assume that the Internet is this wonderful, free, amazing technological development to which we all have the right, but we don’t really think that much about who keeps it running, who makes sure it doesn’t break. And we don’t want to, because it leads to some hard questions. Unfortunately, those questions are being asked and I think it is time that we, as an industry, started to be more aware of who is controlling this behemoth – after all, o0ur livelihoods depend on it.

The Internet itself, as most people know, was actually invented and developed by a posse of American academic institutions, the American military – with some help from a few friendlies, not least us here in the UK (thanking you, Mr. Berners-Lee). It was funded almost exclusively by the American government and it is with the Americans that control remains, via a series of bodies.

The most important is ICANN, an organisation established by the Clinton government in the 1990s to co-ordinate the running of the Internet, in particular, ensuring its stable and secure operation. It is important to note that despite its claim to represent 111 countries via a Governmental Advisory Committee, that its role is simply one that the US Department of Commerce has contracted to them – so no matter how objective ICANN may appear, the US is still the dominant player. ICANN sets policy in three areas, with supporting organisations providing the substantive procedures, policies and management of each:

– Addressing – managed by RIRs such as RIPE. These manage the release of IP address space.

– Protocols – managed by the IETF. Responsibility for defining Internet Standards via the release of Requests for Comments (RFCs) lies here

– Domain names – managed by National registrars in each country.

Next comes the more familiar ISOC, an amalgamation of various groups which came together to create the Internet. The initial role and responsibility of th4ese groups was vague, and strongly tied in with the military, so in 1992 the decision was made to form this international not-for profit organisation to provide a framework under which these groups could work. It “owns” the following key bodies:

– Internet Architecture Board (IAB)

– Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF)

– Internet Research Taskforce (IRTF)

– Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG)

So, there is a clear, strong infrastructure of management of the Internet – of that we can be confident. The perceived problem is the domination of the US. Many countries would prefer to see the Internet firmly in the hands of the UN – and that would certainly be the case in a rose-tinted view of the world.

But I do have some issues with this. On the pro side :

The Internet is without doubt an International entity now, it makes sense that it is therefore in the hands of International government

The Americans have certainly shown bias towards their own in the past. Take the issue of IP4 Address space – the majority of which is in the hands of American organisations. Some, like Stanford University have given their allocations back. Others – namely the American Corporate giants including Ford, Halliburton Company, and Prudential Securities– who own millions of unused IPv4 address space – have not, and the government in the US has shown no inclination to intervene. So when you find yourself being charged for IPv4 space in the near future, you know where the blame really lies.

However, that said, the thought of the UN taking control also concerns me. Do we really want countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia or China having an equal say when they have all taken very public stances over censorship of the Internet. I believe it would also lead to the Internet becoming a political tool – when run by the UN how could it be otherwise? It’s fight to gain control has already been politicised.

And, in short, where does the real Internet expertise lie? Any international bodies would be dominated by Americans simply because they are the ones who have the experience, and it is from America that the key breakthrough are coming. If you put politics aside, there is no real issue.

And for that reason there is no real answer. It’s a shame that something as fantastic as the Internet, which has been given to the world essentially for free, is becoming a pawn in a wider game, and that is why I believe it is up to us to make our voices heard when it comes to keeping the Internet free for everyone.



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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine
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