Monday, May 04, 2009


The Internet, in New Scientist

New Scientist magazine has posted an eight-part article titled “Eight things you didn’t know about the internet”. As someone who knows about the Internet, I thought I’d comment on the various parts. Today, part 1: “Who controls the internet?”, by Michael Brooks.

Mr Brooks gives his answer to the question in terms of ICANN:

The official answer is no one, but it is a half-truth that few swallow. If all nations are equal online, the US is more equal than others.

Not that it is an easy issue to define. The internet is, essentially, a group of protocols by which computers communicate, and innumerable servers and cables, most of which are in private hands. However, in terms of influence, the overwhelming balance of power lies with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, based in Marina Del Rey, California.


While I’ll certainly agree that the U.S. has more than its share of influence, I’ll disagree with Mr Brooks in several respects.

First, looking at ICANN: it’s true that ICANN is incorporated as a non-profit organization under U.S. law (and that of the state of California). And it’s true that ICANN receives funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce. But ICANN does not “report to” the Department of Commerce, and there are no members of the ICANN Board of Directors who work for DoC, nor any other arm of the U.S. Government. In fact, several of the board members are staunch supporters of an open Internet that’s not under the thumb of any government, and the members hail from an assortment of countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Norway, and India, as well as the United States.

As one (but not the only) source of funding for ICANN, the DoC does have pull, of course. But it’s misleading to say that “ICANN reports to the US government’s Department of Commerce,” and that the DoC therefore “oversees” everything.

ICANN is not involved in the routine assigning of domain names, which is handled by the registrars. ICANN accredits the registrars, and, yes, ICANN can withdraw the accreditation of a particular registrar (and has done so, for good cause). But the idea that the United States could abruptly shut down domain name registration is ludicrous.

Apart from that, ICANN controls only a small part of what the Internet is. In an attempt to give a concise answer to a complex question, Mr Brooks puts ICANN’s function forward as a key point of control. It is, to a point, but it’s less than the New Scientist article leads us to believe.

What ICANN does is:

  1. Define the “top-level domains” (TLDs) and assign them to registry managers.
  2. Accredit domain-name registrars.
  3. Control the DNS “root” zone (through IANA).
And note that the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function, currently operated by ICANN, is separable and could be moved elsewhere with a change in contract.

There’s a lot more to the Internet than what ICANN controls. The backbone communications infrastructure has nothing to do with ICANN... but no cabal of communications service providers control the Internet. ICANN is not involved in creating the standards on which the Internet works... but the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and the many other standards organizations do not control the Internet.

The answer really is in Mr Brooks’s first sentence: no one “controls” the Internet. Despite the influence that various governments, companies, and non-governmental organizations have, and despite any laws that affect one set of users or another, no one controls the Internet. And that’s important.

The series at a glance:

  1. Who controls the internet? (this page)
  2. Could the net become self-aware?
  3. How big is the net?
  4. Is there only one internet?
  5. Where are the net’s dark corners?
  6. Is the net hurting the environment?
  7. Could we shut the net down?

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