Who controls the Internet?

This is the question posed by every single Internet governance paper, every Internet regulation book. In classrooms around the world, students grapple with this very simple question.

The usual answer is that nobody is in charge of the Internet. Of course, this is not entirely true, there has to be some sort of structure, the Internet Society describes the network as “run by non-profit membership organizations that work together to meet everyone’s needs.” The main organisations are ICANN, IANA, IETF, W3C, IAB, IESG and the Internet Society. These non-profit organisations are the ones with the real power, but they are distributed, bottom-up institutions ruled by the multi-stakeholder model of governance in which in theory everyone can join and has a chance to participate in the important decision-making process. This is an impressively distributed and fuzzy architectural structure for something as important to our daily lives as the Internet. Yet the model works, decisions are made, and the system continues to operate efficiently, allowing you to read these words, and me to continue watching cat videos on YouTube.

I ask the question because it has been very prominent in the last few months, prompted by fears that the United Nations is about to try to take over the Internet. As I have commented before, back in February an article in the Wall Street Journal by a US official alerted us of the dangers of an eventual take over of the Internet governance structure by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The claim was so broad that it prompted me to look at it closely, but I was not able to find any evidence of this fabled invasion by the red horde. I sort of forgot about it, until I read another article warning about the ITU’s takeover by none other than Vint Cerf. Now I had to stop and listen, this is Vint Cerf, the closest thing the Internet has to venerable states-person! I was however disappointed, as much as I admire Mr Cerf the article was short on detail. The evidence of the feared attack to Internet openness is once again the fact that in September 2011, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan submitted a proposal for an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security”, positions that will be discussed in December at the World Conference on International Telecommunications. But it is now June and I have yet to read a single ITU document detailing the dire danger in which we apparently encounter ourselves.

So where is all the noise coming from? It might not be surprising to find out that a lot of noise emanates from the United States Government. Mr McDowell, the author of the WSJ piece, works for the Federal Communications Commission, and Mr Cerf is the US Chief Technology Officer. Yesterday there was a US Congressional hearing in which several witnesses commented on how important it is to maintain the Internet open. I read some of the statements, followed several live tweets of the proceedings, and also read as many reports of the event as I could. Yet I was not able to find the elusive evidence that points out that there is this nefarious plan actually taking place. I am not saying that there is not such plan, but why is it so difficult to find out any real detail of what it actually entails? Lack of transparency in the negotiations is possible, but is it not ironic that the US government seems to be complaining about lack of transparency after what they did with ACTA, and are currently doing with the TPP negotiations?

The reason why US officials are making so much noise is that while the Internet is currently governed by the multi-stakeholder model, if you scratch the surface the United States is in real control of the Internet where it counts. ICANN is a US-based corporation with continuing strong links to the Department of Commerce, and ICANN runs IANA. Many people forget that the IETF was created by the US government. All of the boards of directors of the main Internet organisations are populated by US citizens, and most of the leaders, CEOs and chairs of those institutions are from the US. When attending the ICANN meeting in Costa Rica last March, I was struck by the prevalence of Americans at every level of the organisation, and while it is very international, it seemed like some key positions were all in US control. Moreover, the multi-stakeholder model favours the presence of US companies, organisations and institutions.

So, when the US Congress produces a Bill which says that “given the importance of the Internet to the global economy, it is essential that the Internet remain stable, secure, and free from government control”, they really mean “other government control”. Yes, I know that the current structure has gone to a lot of work to state that there is no such thing as US control. But to deny that it has disproportionate influence would be naive.

Anyway, the current struggle is just part of a long history of governance spats between the US and some sectors of the international community, as this excellent article by the Internet Governance Project clearly explains. What is different is that this time the US has decided to strike early and to pre-empt any surprises by sounding the alarm. As evidence by some responses, their strategy is working (Tell the ITU the Internet belongs to us!). Does the Internet belong to us? I think that there is a capitalisation error in that slogan.

By the way, that US Congress statement gave me the loudest belly-laugh that I’ve had this year. Try reading the following phrase while thinking of CISPA, PIPA and SOPA without laughing: “Whereas the proposals would diminish the freedom of expression on the Internet in favor of government control over content, contrary to international law”. Who said legislators were not into comedy?

Comments 6

  1. Great post!

    I totally agree with what you stated. I've been watching over some IG issues lately (for a year or so) and I observed the same mechanisms beneath the surface.

    I am kind of a newbie maybe, but I can't stop hoping for a non US based governance entity. Anyways, the multistakeholder model seems to arise as the ideal choice in terms of theoretical structure so far 😉

    Just one thing to add, in my opinion: The ICANN has competence over IANA and the DNS root zone thanks to a periodical delegation issued by the US government. Lately, the US Govt. didn't "automatically" renew this delegation addresssing technical concerns. I see this as a move to show how is in charge, as well.

    So, some of the internet critical resources are under the US jurisdiction if I am correct. I hope not, because that sounds creepy enough.

    Greetings from Cordoba, Argentina.

  2. Just as it is a mistake to overstate the threat of the ITU taking over the internet, it's also a mistake to overstate US control over the internet. Your list of the I* organisations lists committees and functions as if they were organisations in their own right when they are not, and completely ignores the RIRs. ICANN's job is the IANA function which is essentially secretarial maintenance of the protocol registries, but the DNS side of this has bloated out of all proportion to the rest of the job. It is the only policy function that ICANN has – the other registries are either controlled by the IETF or by the RIRs. And for operational matters the RIRs are the most important – the IETF is the association of vendors that sets the framework; the RIRs are the associations of ISPs that put it in to action. The DNS seems important because of its connection to trademark law and its visibility to non-specialists, but from the governance point of view the DNS encourages the scum to rise to the top.

    1. Hi Tony,

      Thanks for the excellent comment. Perhaps I have overstated the power the US has, but I really think that there is something there underneath the current structure. The withdrawal of the IANA contract showed who really holds the strings ultimately. True, the power has been distributed, and many of the institutions mentioned are interdependent or part of the same edifice, but that only confirms that at the bottom the US still controls a great deal.

      I agree that the RIRs are a counterweight, but I just wonder how much power the y really wield.

      It's no coincidence that the US is being so vocal, they don't want a change to the status quo.

Leave a Reply