Recalling the heady days just after the Internet's birth, Internet Society (ISOC) President Donald Heath has made a warning-laden plea for a "rough consensus" on the establishment of a self-governing body for the 'Net.
Heath also emphasised the role that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit Internet regulatory organisation established last year, would play in establishing the framework for Internet governance.
"The Internet is increasingly the focus of debate about ownership or control," Health said, mentioning the controversy surrounding the power to oversee domain names, which ICANN will assume from the US government in September. However, "I think the reason the 'Net has expanded as fast as it has is because it has been left alone by large bureaucratic organisations," Heath said.
Some control is needed, however, and how that control should work is one of the stickiest issues facing the Internet today.
"The reason it has been difficult to establish a framework for Internet self-regulation is due to base instincts: greed, jealousy and selfishness," Heath said.
The most poignant example of these baser feelings at work is the battle over domain names and the registry of them, according to Heath.
Since 1992, when it negotiated an exclusive deal with the U.S. government, Network Solutions Inc., of Hendron, Virginia, has been the sole registrar of these domain names. Network Solution's deal gives them the right to control the registry of, and more importantly take part of the proceeds from the sale of, any domain name ending with the suffixes .org, .com, .edu. and .net.
The $US70 that the company currently charges to register a name for two years is seen by many as exorbitant.
"These are problems that cannot be solved without self-government," Heath said. "There should be a simple way to assign names and numbers to the Internet."
In Berlin last week, ICANN established the Domain Names Supporting Organization (DNSO) to help it regulate domain name issues including domain name disputes.
"Establishing the DNSO has been most difficult for three reasons: there is a potential for conflict between trademarks and domain names; there are people who hold domain names hostage ("squatters" who buy a trademarked name on the 'Net and then sell it back to the company who holds the trademark); and most importantly, there is the issue of registry, where regulation needs to be perfectly fair to ensure that there is not undue influence," Health said.
In April, ICANN chose four companies and one organization to undergo two months of testing before joining Network Solution as official issuers of domain names. he organisation expects perhaps 25 more companies and organisations to become official registrars and will set the price of registering a domain name at $9. ICANN will assume oversight in September.
Heath praised ICANN for its open discussion of regulatory issues and their commitment to rough consensus, the instinct to compromise that motivated the first architects of the Internet.
"When cooperation is removed, the Internet begins its downward spiral into oblivion," Heath said. "We much watch out for "mission creep" within ICAAN so they don't do more than assign numbers. But if we fail to keep the Internet independent (of government influence) it will be dealt a severe blow.
Heath spoke in Tokyo at the sixth Network+Interop99Tokyo, a networking trade show sponsored by Softbank.
The Internet Society, based in Reston, Virginia, can be reached at +1-703-326-9880 or at http://www.isoc.org. ICANN, based in Portola Valley, California, can be reached at +1-650-854-2108 or at http://www.icann.org.