The United States, for now, and a good thing, too.
by Ariel Rabkin
In order to please our European allies and our Third World critics, the Obama administration may be tempted to surrender one particular manifestation of American "dominance": central management of key aspects of the Internet by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Other countries are pushing for more control. Early this year, British cabinet member Andy Burnham told the Daily Telegraph that he was "planning to negotiate with Barack Obama's incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites." It would be a mistake for the administration to go along. America's special role in managing the Internet is good for America and good for the world.
Internet domain names (such as www.google.com) are managed hierarchically. At the top of the hierarchy is an entity called IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, operated on behalf of the Commerce Department. The U.S. government therefore has the ultimate authority to review or revoke any decision, or even to transfer control of IANA to a different operator.
Until now, the management of the Domain Name System has been largely apolitical, and most of the disputes that have arisen have been of interest only to insiders and the technology industry. IANA has concerned itself with fairly narrow questions like "Should we allow names ending in .info?" Commercial questions about ownership of names, like other property disputes, are settled in national courts. Political questions like "Who is the rightful government of Pakistan, and therefore the rightful owner of the .pk domain?" are settled by the U.S. Department of State.
There are persistent proposals to break the connection between IANA and the U.S. government. In these schemes, IANA would be directed by some international body, such as the United Nations or the International Telecommunication Union, which coordinates international phone networks. It is unclear what problem such proposals attempt to solve. There have been no serious complaints about American stewardship of the Internet, no actual abuses perpetrated by American overseers. But were we to abdicate this stewardship, a number of difficulties could arise.
Domain names sometimes present political questions. Which side in a civil war should control Pakistan's Internet domain? Should Israel's .il be suspended as punishment for its being an "Apartheid state"? What about Taiwan's .tw if China announces an attempt to "reabsorb its wayward province"?
Perhaps most serious, control of Internet names could become a lever to impose restrictions on Internet content.