Monday, November 14, 2005

The Internet Third Way

Brian Carney at the WSJ predicts that the US and UN tussle over control of the internet will end up creating a 'third way' where the U.S. will refuse to cede official control to the UN which eventually will lead to competing internets.

That alternative is a fragmented Internet, without a single "root file" that describes the locations of everything on the Net. The U.S. government has led many to believe that this is equivalent to dismantling the Internet itself. But it is bluffing.

Here's how it might work. At some point, China will grow tired of the U.S. refusal to give up control to the U.N., and it will secede from the status quo. It will set up its own root server, tweaked to allow access only to those sites the government deems nonthreatening, and simply order every Internet service provider in the country to use it instead of Icann's. The change will be seamless to most users, but China will have set up its own private Net, one answerable to the people's revolutionaries rather than to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Others may follow suit. Root servers could spring up in France, or Cuba, or Iran. In time, the Internet might look less like the Internet and more like, say, the phone system, where there is no "controlling legal authority" on the international level. More liberal-minded countries would probably, if they did adopt a local root-server, allow users to specify which server they wanted to query when typing in, say,

As a technical means of content control, going "split root," as they say in the business, is too compelling for governments not to give it a try. But the user experience would likely be much the same as it ever was most of the time. ISPs, as well as most vaguely democratic governments, would have an interest in ensuring broad interoperability, just as no one in Saudi Arabia or China has yet decided that dialing +1-202-456-1414--the White House switchboard number--from those countries should go somewhere else, like Moammar Gadhafi's house. Nothing stops phone companies from doing things like that, except that the market expects a certain consistency in how phone calls are directed, so it is in the interests of the operators to supply what the market expects. The same principle would apply in a split-root world.

Would it be better if countries that want to muck around with the Net just didn't? Sure. But they do want to, and they will, and it would be far better, in the long run, if they did so on their own, without a U.N. agency to corrupt or give them shelter. It's time to drop the apocalyptic rhetoric about a split root file and start looking beyond the age of a U.S.-dominated Internet. Breaking up is hard to do, but in this case, the alternative would be worse.

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