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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The state and the internet

The Register carries a scary story I have not seen reported elsewhere. Kieren McCarthy’s piece suggests that the independence of the internet may be one more casualty of the ‘war on terror’:

on 28 July 2005 at a special board meeting [...] consciously and for the first time, ICANN used a US government-provided reason to turn over Kazakhstan’s internet ownership to a government owned and run association without requiring consent from the existing owners. The previous owners, KazNIC, had been created from the country’s Internet community.

ICANN then immediately used that “precedent” to hand ownership of Iraq’s internet over to another government-run body, without accounting for any objections that the existing owners might have.

Previously it had always been the case that ICANN would take no action (and only ICANN, through IANA, can actually change ownership of a ccTLD) unless both sides were in complete agreement. Now, ICANN had set itself up as the de facto world authority on who should run different parts of the Internet. The Iraq situation is more complicated than briefly outlined above (of which more later), but in a little under two hours, the ICANN Board set aside a process that had held since the very earliest days of the Internet. Not only that but it provided governments with instant, unassailable control over what happens under their designated area of the internet.

You have to read the whole thing, but the burden is that, far from preserving the net from the dictator’s club at the UN – a posture applauded by Samizdatistas here – the US has provided the political mechanism for its nationalisation. And that merely in order to do a couple of favours for client regimes.

11 comments to The state and the internet

  • You are aware, are you not, that there is no legal or technical reason why anyone can’t run their own DNS server pointing the .kz domain at whatever IP address they like?

  • Top level domain extensions don’t matter. My URL is “denbeste.nu”. NU is the domain for the Pacific island of Nieue, which has a population of about 2200. I live in San Diego and have never been without 2200 miles of the place.

    Control over a top level domain is power that gives you no control at all over anything particularly critical.

  • This is a bad thing, but that said, I basically agree with Mr Den Beste on this one. Top letter domains don’t matter much. They are a convenience in finding a website, and not much more than that. There are lots of other ways to find websites, and in any event more and more of the interesting stuff on the internet is moving off the web and onto applications.

    Also, this isn’t quite as unprecedented as it might seem. Historically, the story is that the two letter country codes were set up in around 1990, and generally control over them in each country was given to somebody who was perceived by the internet community as being technically competent and who was willing to do it. Some of these people have kept control since, others have given up the power (or effectively sold the power) to companies, governments, and consortia, and other have had the power essentially removed from their grasp by a variety of dubious legal and coersive tactics. (The .au domain in Australia is an example, where. For many years the domain was administered by a chap from the University of Melbourne named Robert Elz, but the power was eventually taken off him in a rather dubious way by a well connected business consortium with tacit government backing. (Australia is largely run by well connected business groups with tacit government backing). This latest move by the Americans is rather in keeping with the sort of thing that has happened elsewhere.

  • Ron Copeland

    This is not scary. It is possibly the silliest article I’ve read in a while.* ICANN turned control of a country’s domain to the government of that country. This is not some new “precedent”, it’s their policy. Besides, just who should control the .iq and .kz domains if not the governments of Iraq and Kazakhstan? Should ICANN arbitrarily decide which governments control their own domains and which do not? Would the Register be happy then?

    That’s what makes this article so silly. The Register doesn’t think a US agency should be in charge. But this is exactly the policy the UN would follow, and should in my opinion. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If ICANN had any other policy, the Register (and others) would be criticizing them for their unilateralism.

    * The sinister AP story today on how the Whitehouse uses a site counter on the web site may be worse. I haven’t decided yet.

  • Besides, just who should control the .iq and .kz domains if not the governments of Iraq and Kazakhstan?

    Who? Someone other than the governments of Iraq and Kazakhstan. Why exactly should governments have control over these things?

  • Fiona

    This post suggests that the government of Kaz has other ideas.
    They want the machines running the name located in the country so they can control them. Sounds like a pointless endeavor driven by technologically illiterate people. As if anyone cares if a political opposition website has a kz domain name.

  • I think this article is in error.

    It has always been the standard that the domains designated by country extension are the purview of the internationally recognized national governments. There was the case a few years ago when ICANN turned over the .sa domain to the South African government and the ONE guy that had been maintaining the domain encrypted the root server (which was out of country IIRC) in protest.

    I don’t think the first entity to establish a root server for a country domain necessarily has greater claim to domain than a national government. Were that they case, grad students at Stanford would control most of the national domains in the world.

    If anything, this a sop to those squealing that their national governments don’t have control over “their” internet. Now they can have their ego soothing but technically useless country domain and the rest of us can get back to work.

  • guy herbert

    The Register doesn’t think a US agency should be in charge.

    I don’t think that’s what they are saying. The story is subtler than that, as is the threat.

    ICANN is US-based, but is not formally a US government agency, a distinction that The Register gets, even if the world’s authoritarians/totalitarians (TWATs) can’t grok independent civil institutions.

    But ICANN has apparently submitted to US government pressure and bent its own rules in favour of states, the effect being to grant all states greater powers. Of course it isn’t the end of the world, but it is a step down the path to perdition from a transnational voluntarist DNS system to a nationalised (or, equivalently, internationalised) state-regulated one.

    The idea of Stanford grad students controlling most of the country codes is actually very appealing. A random selection of geeks and their successors-in-title strikes me as a much safer set of hands than TWATs aforementioned. The fate of the .su domain is interesting, though I don’t know if any lessons can be drawn from it.

  • Sylvain Galineau

    Which is what the ICANN critics from Europe and elsewhere wanted in the first place. What better way to show them how wonderful a plan it was than by preemptively passing the buck to one or two tyrannies ?

    If they protest this, they will look like hypocritical fools.

    Unfortunately, this explanation is probably too charitable by a few halves.

  • rosignol

    I don’t think that’s what they are saying. The story is subtler than that, as is the threat.

    Threat?

    I am having difficulty understanding exactly what the ‘threat’ is.

    I’ve been reading the Register on-and-off for ~5 years now, and it’s basically a tech tabloid. The stories should be considered editorials, frequently with a heavy dose of rumor and speculation, not news, and the reporters are not noted for their technical expertise or in-depth understanding of the technical (or political, or legal) issues involved.

    For example:

    “If a company running a country code top-level domain refuses to agree to hand over any information or data held by it to the government, either legally, illegally or extra-legally, secretly or not, the government can simply replace the company with a government-run agency. If it refuses to shut down a website, or to redirect it elsewhere, the government can simply replace it with a government-run agency.”

    This is pretty much garbage.

    1) The useful information that a registrar has is the mapping of domains to ip addresses. This information is freely accessible, that’s the point.

    2) Registrars have no control whatsoever over the content of a website. None. At. All. Often, the website in question is not within the physical borders of the nation associated with the relevant TLD. In such a case, the most- the absolute most- a registrar can do is point the domain name at a different ip address, and there is nothing at all preventing the owners of said website from registering a domain in one of the ~250 or so other TLDs.

    So Ali G will need to spend ~$30 USD to register Borat.com.

    BFD. Even in the minor scheme of things, this is trivial.

    On the other hand, the world will have yet another concrete example of the difference between a government that respects freedom of speech and one that doesn’t.

    That is a good thing. It makes the trans-national multiculturists’ job harder when they come along trying to push their ‘every culture is equal, and all governments are equally legitimate’ nonsense.

  • guy herbert

    A registrar has accounting and contact information, too; and something approaching control over the mapping in question, not just information about it. They have no control of website content, but can, for the 95%+ of the world’s online population that has no capacity to find a site otherwise than through its domain name, effectively switch it off. Those are all things likely to be of interest to governments.

    What are technical trivialities in freedom become choke-points for official bullies. Recall licensing for typewriters in Cold War eastern Europe. Recall that even the British government has floated the idea licensing and registration of PCs under the colouration of paying for the BBC. Recall buying a mobile phone in much of the world means identifying yourself, not for credit purposes, but for the official record.

    In Sacha Baron-Cohen’s case, yes, his joke is mildly undermined and he just has to get another borat.-domain; and the complacent of the Western world get a nice warm feeling of the superiority of its institutions. But nevertheless, state control of domains means free speech is marginally weakened for those who most need it–who may not be able to pay InterNIC or fight their way through its protocols, or who might even as the next step be forbidden to own an overseas domain…

    States don’t compete for people. They shepherd them, copy one another and make international agreements for mutual convenience. So an example of a state managing some ‘regulation’ of the internet is not a good thing. Showing up that state as bad in our eyes has no consequence for it. What it does do is offer a way that state has made itself stronger in one respect than the others. That will attract emulation, perhaps leapfrogging. Ungood.