Slate on ICANN and Internet governance

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Today's Slate has a somewhat confusing and confused article about Internet governance and ICANN.
ICANN hasn't been doing a bad job. For one thing, there have been no major outages in its seven years as cyber traffic cop. Nevertheless, in the months leading up to the summit, a group of countries (most notably Brazil, Cuba, Iran, and Zimbabwe) pressed the United Nations to assume ICANN's functions, while members of the European Union clamored to dilute American control.

This fundamentally misunderstands ICANN's role, which is administrative, not operational. It's true that ICANN has responsibility for who runs the root servers, but the only one they actually operate is L. So, even if they wanted to cause an outage, it's hard to see how they'd actually manage it, unless you assume that the root server operators are singularly careless when they take updates from ICANN.

The Web has become just another front in the battle between the United States and the rest of the world, and Tunisia was a convenient time and place to vent strong anti-American feelings. Although the United States government has not meddled in ICANN's operations yet, our U.N. brethren fear that an America with a unilateral foreign policy will eventually become an America with a unilateral Internet policy. Other countries have every right to be suspicious. If it wanted, the U.S. government could take over ICANN and block Internet traffic to a nation that harbors terrorists. It could access the databases that house domain names and use the information to take down computers serving up anti-American rhetoric or locate state enemies.

Well, sort of. In principle the US government could instruct ICANN to reassign say Iran's TLD to some other organization, but this wouldn't block traffic to addresses in Iran, just stop people from resolving addresses in .ir. And, of course that assumes that the roots would actually accept that redelegation, which isn't actually clear. Now, the US Government could instruct ICANN to instruct IANA to redelegate netblocks in Iran to somewhere else, but as I've noted before, IANA has only limited latitude in how it does those delegations, and it's not clear that operators would accept route advertisements that were clearly in violation of policy.

Now, as for the question of privacy violations First, many registrations are available through whois, so there's no need to do anything special to get information. Second, remember that ICANN doesn't actually have anyone's personal information: the registrars have that. So, in order to get that information, ICANN would have to threaten the registrars with losing their delegations. That's a pretty blunt instrument which would clearly strike at the heart of ICANN's legitimacy. And, of course, it's not clear why you would bother with any of this. Finally, most of the major registrars are based in the United States, so the US government could simply cut out the middleman and subpoena the information from them directly.

The best solution might simply be to allow any country that wants the job to host the DNS system. How? Peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent.

Here's how it could work, according to computer security researcher Robert G. Ferrell, a former at-large member of ICANN. Countries that choose to house Torrent servers would receive a random piece of the DNS pie over a closed P2P network, with mirrors set up to correct data by consensus in the case of corruption or unauthorized modification. No one country would actually physically host the entire database. In essence, everybody would be in charge, but no one would be in control. Isn't that how the United Nations functions anyway?

I'm starting to hear a lot more about people being interested in P2P naming, but I don't think it's something we're even close to ready for. For now, let me just say that it's a lot more complicated than it sounds, especially in the area of establishing who has the rights to which name. It's definitely not what one would call a solved problem.

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