May 5, 1997

RULES ARE CHANGING ON THE INTERNET

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Every tool and service needs regular tuning to work properly, and the Internet is no exception. Despite its much-vaunted decentralization, it has always been governed by various official bodies, and the newest stage of mass acceptance is raising questions of “Who rules?” more urgently than ever.

The immediate stimulus to political discussion is the question of domain names: strings like whitehouse.gov or microsoft.com that people use to send email, look up Web sites, and so forth. The average Internet user does not worry much about whether the last element of the name says “gov” or “com” or something else. Even less does he or she worry about how much the company paid for the name, which agency was allowed to provide it, or what the legal relationship is between a domain name and a trademark. Yet debates are currently raging about all these issues on mailing lists all around the Internet, and among national and international bodies. The debates reach far beyond such narrow questions to suggest the need for new organizations, policies, and processes that can govern the Internet.

Other controversies that spawn attempts at regulation include content restriction (such as the Communications Decency Act) copyright issues, and encryption. As more and more standard-setting bodies put in their two cents, and even newer ones are proposed to take charge of various functions, public debate about the whole governance issue intensifies. In order to give you a framework for participating in the debate, this article introduces types of governing organizations, and lays out some criteria for improving public representation.

In most industries one finds four types of organizational control:

Where is Internet governance headed? With the burgeoning of both the network itself and the organizations interested in it, all I can predict is several interesting years for policy wonks. But the public would be best served if participants considered these points:

  1. Issues like the assigning of domain names should be opened to public debate as much as feasible. The tradition of Internet drafts and Requests for Comments is well worth following. Adequate time for study and responses is critical. An organization like a public utility commission—if it is faithfully attended by public interest groups—may be the most democratic forum for making policy.
  2. Regulatory organizations that were set up to deal with older technologies (such as telephones) should tread gingerly in dealing with the Internet. Their old assumptions and processes are not as well-adapted to the Internet as those of organizations that have grown up on the Internet itself. Kevin Werbach of the Federal Communications Commission recently made the same warning in a paper titled “Digital Tornado.”
  3. Similarly, the businesses that provide or work over the Internet are not always the most reliable sources for public policy, although their perspective is certainly important. Insofar as they want to promote the spread of the Internet, their interests tend to be aligned with the public, but they also tend to look for short-term ways to increase their own markets or profit opportunities to the possible detriment of Internet users.
  4. It is reasonable for initiatives to come from the U.S. at present, but the eventual goal must be international organizations whose representation is as broad as the Internet itself.

The Internet is a critical public resource, originally developed by the U.S. government and funded by U.S. taxpayers. Therefore, Internet end-users have a legitimate right to play a meaningful role in decisions influencing its administration and governance.


Editor, O’Reilly Media
Author’s home page
Other articles in chronological order
Index to other articles