My Take on WSIS and DNS

I will be the first to acknowledge that some good came out of World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) last week in bringing together a lot of people to talk about important issues. On the key item in the news, what would happen to ICANN and management of the domain name system, the U.S. won hands down. And while I have no desire whatsoever to see the DNS run by some UN-type organization, I understand why the U.S. is not exactly popular in other countries.

A disclaimer. Back in 2002, I wrote a book chapter for a CATO Book (yes, progressive me got asked to do a chapter in a CATO book, life is funny that way) on ICANN. “Structured to Fail: ICANN and the ‘Privatization’ Experiment.” In it, I argued that ICANN had been created as a compromise among competing interests that could not hold together and that, inevitably, there would be some sort of show down between any of the following: the U.S. (which didn’t want to let go), the rest of the world (which wanted more of a say in DNS operations), Verisign (which is not happy with how it gets regulated), the root server operators and other members of the old “technical community” (who see ICANN as a heat shield from regulation) and the country code top level domain (ccTLD) administrators, who sometimes have issues with their sovereign govenrments.

Well, as folks who follow this know, that almost happened at the World Summit on Information Society last week. The “Tussle in Tunis” squared the U.S. off against the rest of the world on “internet governance,” by which we mean control of DNS. After dancing around negotiations for 2 years, in which the U.S. declared that not only was it never going to give up control of the DNS, it wasn’t even going to talk about it, the rest of the world had had enough. The U.S. was going to have to open up. This was definitely it. No way the U.S. was wriggling out of this one, now that the EU had agreed to push for more international control.

As chronicled by Milton “Witness to DNS History” Mueller, the end result is an agreement to talk about a wide range of issues, including, incidentally, internet governance for the next five years. And to get this “concession” the rest of the world signed on to a set of consensus points that said, basically, everything so far has worked really wonderfully and we see no reason to change anything anytime soon, but there are still some details to work out, so we’ll keep talking.

I confess to genuinely mixed feelings. On the one hand, ICANN and the U.S. wouldn’t even have been in this mess if they had paid attention to their critics in 1999-2001 about how they were building a structure without legitimacy. But the ICANN folks fell into the classic mistake of assuming that, since they were winning, legitimacy was unimportant. But short term wins do not make long term viability. Ultimately, ICANN continues not because it has loyalty and respect from folks, but because the U.S. wants to keep control (the exact opposite of what ICANN was supposed to be about).

OTOH, I loath the idea of replacing ICANN with some sort of U.N. type organziation that will have not the least compunction about doing things like yanking Israel’s tld, .il, out of the root, imposing a dollar a name tax to fund whatever worthy cause takes its fancy, and regulate content access. One advanatge of the “generic” top level domains is that folks critical of repressive regimes have someplace to register. But if repressive regimes get their talons into regulating registries, this will change.

But, on the third hand, I can’t help but think that this sort of heavy handed unilateral approach is exactly why we are so unpopular in the world at large. Forget the Iraq war. We do this all the time as part of our negotiations of international treaty obligations. Running rough shod on other countries (although usually with the EU joining us), sometimes tossing them a bone, and then half the time yanking the bone away again. (For example, we agreed to make medicine available in developing nations as part of the “Doha Agreement” on world trade back nearly five years ago, and have spent the time since then trying to redefine and renegotiate our commitment there out of existence.)

So never mind that turning this over to the U.N. looks awful. To most of the world, the events leading to WSIS look something like this.

Every other country in the World: We think that, now that we all rely and depend on the Internet, we think control should be opened up a bit. Right now, the U.S. Dept. of Commerce can control the internet addressing system, like it did when it instructed ICANN to give Iraq’s .iq ccTLD to someone it unilaterally chose.

U.S.: No.

Rest of World: Can we talk about this?

U.S.: No. You guys should be grateful we invented this stuff in the first place. And besides, everything is working perfectly the way it is.

RoW: Actually, that’s part of the problem. It’s not working perfectly. If we could just talk about it-

U.S.: I told you it’s working perfectly and we don’t even need to talk about it. Now bug off or I will make you all dance the macarena.

RoW: Ummmm…..right. [pause, trying again] Look, an increasing segment of our economies and communications infrastructure depends on this stuff and we’re a little nervous about the fact that, at any time, you can assign control of it to anyone you want.

U.S.: Trust us, we wouldn’t do that.

RoW: But you just DID that.

U.S.: Did not.

RoW: You just took .iq away from the people who were controlling it and gave it to your guys in Iraq!

U.S.: We are confident that decision reflected the consensus of the internet community.

RoW: (getting a little exasperated) But you did it without telling anyone!

U.S.: You want the terrorists to win?

RoW: Well no, but-

U.S.: So what’s the problem?

RoW: Look, can we just talk about changing the governance structure to reflect-

U.S.: O.K., I’m out of patience. Anyone who wants to keep their ccTLD dance the macarena. [looks at watch] I’m waaaaiiiiiting …..

RoW: We’re not dancing. We put our foot dow…I mean, we’re serious this time. We all agree on this. You are the only hold out. [With great resolution and trying for menace] If you don’t open up DNS governance, we will make you open up!

U.S.: (Lifts middle finger in international gesture of respectful disagreement). Now dance!
[Starts to hum]

RoW: [Feet involuntarily taping nervously but trying to stay firm] We are going to be really really mad at you if you don’t open up. We mean it! You’ve gone too far. We want shared control of the DNS right now. AND WE’RE NOT DANCING!

U.S.: [stops humming] Wow, you guys are serious. [pause] O.K., we’ll agree to talk about intenret governance, if all of you sign this statement which says ‘Everything has been hunky dory and wonderful, the U.S. has done the most super spluffty fanatstic job in creating a system that promotes all good things, and we see no need to make any changes — but we will go on yacking about it anyway.’

RoW: Are you nuts?

U.S.: I hope you brought your dancing shoes . . . .

RoW: O.K., we’ll sign! But no macarena!

U.S.: You drive a hard bargain, and the folks on the Hill will hate that we gave in about not dancing the macarena. Norm Coleman really wanted to see you dance. But O.K.

ROW & US Joint statement: Parties achieve significant compromise and move forward in new agreement of consensus and understanding.

NGOs: Wow, no macarena! I knew we could get some serious concessions.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. Harold,

    This is flipping brilliant, and now I know what book to ask Santa to put under the tree. Long term, it’s hard to see how this system of governance will continue to hold together, especially if the US continues to make itself a pariah. But in the short term, I’ll just get up every morning like I always do, make my coffee, open the ol’ laptop and see if the internet is still there. If it isn’t, then I’ll know something happened.

  2. Hysterical, Harold, and poignant. You inspired me. See

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