Monday, October 17, 2005

The Intermess

Richard Fernandez over at The Belmont Club has some interesting thoughts about the possible disintegration of the Internet. It seems there is international pressure--notably from countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, to "share the governance" of the Internet, which is presently administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) under contract to the US department of commerce. The United Nations' Working Group on Internet Governance proposes putting control of the Internet in the hands of the United Nations (surprise). The fear, apparently, is that we can't be trusted to control the Internet anymore. Maybe because it's working so poorly now the only thing we can do to save it is hand over control to the United Nations, which manages to control everything so well. But Fernandez makes an excellent point:
It is precisely because the US "has never abused its position in that way" that the Internet has become so universally accepted. It is on the basis of that "full faith and confidence" in the system that vast information flows, often transacted by companies worth many billions of dollars, can occur on a routine basis. By maintaining this medium of exchange, the United States has become the information central banker to the world. The WGIG's essentially argues that the United States might be tempted to debase the Internet in order to control it. However, a moment's reflection will convince most readers that any American attempt to behave as the WGIG's members (like Saudi Arabia and Iran) would probably be tempted to behave would instantly lead to the end of the US monopoly. The New Scientist's claim that the Internet has become too valuable to entrust it to the United States stands the logic on its head. The Internet has become too valuable, even to American companies alone, for anyone to even think of monkeying with it. Anyone that is, except the WGIG.
Read the whole thing here.


Apollodorus said...

Unless things have changed drastically since I worked as a network administrator several years ago, the Internet is not exactly 'controlled' by anyone, least of all a national government. The only important kind of control that lies with a central authority is the assignment of blocks of IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. Those blocks, however, tend to be distributed in very large chunks to very large networks which, in turn, distribute chunks to other networks, who distribute chunks to other networks, and so on, and so on.

Even so, the fact that a central authority assigns blocks of addresses to different networks in no way controls who can gain access to the Internet. All that anyone needs in order to connect their (in principle, at least, indefinitely large) network to the Internet is to find another network which is already connected and link to it. Because of the way that IP routing works, I can hypothetically use one single IP address to route Internet traffic to a network of thousands of computers. Of course, it might not be especially efficient, but it would work. For instance, the apartment complex where I live has ethernet connections in every apartment, but each of our individual computers gets routed through a central machine, which is, as far as the Internet at large is concerned, the one address from which each of the apartments accesses the Internet.

Even if there were some attempt by some central authority to exert some kind of oppressive control over the assignment of addresses, large networks could simply refuse to play along. Of course, networks in certain areas might be compelled to submit to some greater authority (e.g., the infamous censorship of the Internet in China). Otherwise, though, the only real authority on the Internet is the one that the big networks choose to recognize. I might be missing something, but it sounds to me like a lot of noise being made over a matter of very little substance.

Scott Carson said...

I think you may be overinterpreting the word "control." At issue is the management role that has been given to Icann.

You can read more about it here.