From content regulation to limits on the use of encryption, the majority of government actions worldwide aimed at regulating the Internet have been met with cries of protest from the Internet community and technology industry, who claim the Internet should remain close to its roots as a non-regulated, public medium governed by its users.
In the case of the registration and management of top level domain (TLD) names, such as .com and .net, the US government has for once granted the private sector its wish for self-regulation.
In June, the US government released a white paper suggesting that the day-to-day upkeep of domain names -- which is now run by US-government funded monopoly Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and whose contract runs out Sept. 30 -- be turned over to a non-profit "New Organisation" made up of private-sector board members from several countries. In addition, the issuing of TLDs, now handled by another US government-funded monopoly called Network Solutions, would be opened up to competitive registrars around the globe.
"It is our (the US government's) strong, strong disposition to get out of this," said Ira Magaziner, President Clinton's senior advisor for policy development, speaking about the domain name debate. However, as he has warned in the past, Magaziner said if industry can't get its act together to form this new organisation in time, the US government will have to come up with a plan in conjunction with other governments.
"The broader political community is watching this," Magaziner said refering to the development of the private-sector domain name organisation. This is a chance for industry to prove itself in self-regulation, he said.
Time is running out for industry to create this new structure, with the Sept. 30 deadline now just two months away. And considering the amount of head-butting that went on between members of the "private sector" -- from academics and lawyers to technology companies and independent Internet organisations such as the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Engineering Task Force -- this week at the Internet Society's 8th Annual INET conference in Geneva, a consensus on how to run this New Organization seems light years away.
This afternoon and tomorrow, interested parties are invited to attend a series of open meetings in Geneva dubbed the International Forum on the Whitepaper (IFWP), in an attempt to iron out the details of the New Organisation. One such meeting has already taken place in Reston, Virginia, earlier this month, with another set for Singapore Aug. 12-13.
While the international community seems to broadly agree on the formation of the New Organisation to replace IANA, many questions as to its final structure still remain. Will the organisation permit members from the government to join? What will be the role of international organisations such at the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the International Telecommunications Union? Will registrars be for-profit or non-profit? How will the New Organisation ensure that industry members have no ulterior allegiances to their shareholders? How will trademark disputes be settled? And what impact will existing work in the area of domain names have on the new negotiations?
These questions were batted around for the three days of the INET '98 conference in panel sessions, written papers and discussions over coffee breaks and the battle looks set to continue well into the weekend as the IFWP meeting rolls on. A consensus on every issue is not expected this weekend or indeed before the Sept. 30 deadline, said many observers. The idea is to put a preliminary board in place that will tackle the sticky issues throughout its first year, said Jon Postel, head of IANA.
Those working on the formation of the "new IANA" are confident they will finish in time, Postel said. "There is a clear commitment to work together on this."
"We're confident the private sector is moving toward an agreement on domain names," agreed Magaziner.
Already, the group has come up with some preliminary plans for the new organization. First off, it is imperative that the New Organisation stick to the business of managing the global domain name system, and not get involved in other Internet issues, such as content regulation, Postel said. The organization will most likely be made up of committees, each one specializing in a certain technical, social or legal issue that will each come up with policies. The board will not come up with policy itself, but will act to ensure the development of an open, fair system, while in turn, a staff will actually carry out the new policies, Postel said.
One large road block remains unsolved, and that is how to fund the New Organisation, Postel said. The decision will have to be made whether the operation of the group will be funded by individuals, corporations or other donations, Postel said. The US government currently pays IANA about US$1 million a year to run IANA, according to Magaziner.
All of the camps involved, from the individual user to U.N.-level organizations such as WIPO, are wondering how they can have a say in the New Organisation. Individuals, it seems, are simultaneously wary of government involvement and the possible effects a powerful, rich corporation could have on the body, while governments, non-government organizations and businesses are fighting for their right to have a say in the future architecture of the Internet.
"Just because the organisation will be non-governmental does not mean it will be good," said Meryem Marzouki, head of a French Internet user group called Isis. "Can we be sure companies won't have their own agendas?"
"I am totally opposed to passing the management of domain names to private business," said Vassilis Salapatas, IT director at the Athens Chamber of Commerce. "Companies always have too much personal interest, whereas governments are more elastic." Instead of the proposed New Organisation, which will undoubtedly draw on IANA's US-centered activities, Salapatas suggested creating a non-government organisation or a cross-border government body to manage domain names.
Representatives from countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America seemed particularly worried that the New Organisation would be too US-centric, as it will be based loosely around IANA. For years countries outside the U.S. were left out completely of the registry of top-level domain names aside from their individual country domains. As a result, they were diametrically opposed to the U.S. government's original green paper in January, which wanted a U.S.-based organization to continue overseeing domain names.
The New Organisation promises international representation, but many people are wary of what that means.
Attendees from Africa and Latin America met throughout INET to discuss a way to form groups representing their entire regions, hoping to present a unified front for a real chance at getting a board member.
"We plan to group together as Africans to make one stand to join the new IANA," said Louis Bokungu Bolese, Internet manager at the Agence Congolaise de Presse, a news agency in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "It wouldn't be possible to get representation if each country went at it itself."
"Latin America will form a group to choose who will represent us on a high level," said Sebastian Castro Avila, a technical assistant at NIC Chile, the organization responsible for registering the .cl domain name. "Latin America is a baby in the Internet and if we are going to have any power and not be light years away from Europe and the US, we have to act now."
It is highly important that Asia-Pacific, one of the areas of the world with the most explosive Internet growth, be represented on the board as well, said Paul Twomey, CEO of the National Office for Information Economics, the government body responsible for registering the country domain in Australia. Regardless of how the New Organisation is set up, it should be sustainable over a long period of time to deal with international shifts in Internet usage, he said.
"I am absolutely convinced that the US. won't be the center of the Internet in 10 to 15 years," Twomey said. "I want the new domain name society to be ready when 3 billion people get online."