Who controls the Internet?

The official answer is no one, but it is a half-truth that few swallow. If all nations are equal online, the US is more equal than others.

The official answer is no one, but it is a half-truth that few swallow. If all nations are equal online, the US is more equal than others.

Not that it is an easy issue to define. The internet is, essentially, a group of protocols by which computers communicate, and innumerable servers and cables, most of which are in private hands. However, in terms of influence, the overwhelming balance of power lies with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, based in Marina Del Rey, California.

ICANN is a not-for-profit organisation that regulates online addresses, known as domain names, and their suffixes, such as ".com" and ".org". Since ICANN reports to the US government's Department of Commerce, the domain name process is effectively overseen by the US government. China, Russia and Europe have all expressed concern at this situation because it means the US has leverage over the global coordination of the internet. "It has a role that is different from the role of all other governments," says Massimiliano Minisci, a regional manager at ICANN. "That's a concern around the world."

It is not hard to see why. Take, for instance, a scenario in which a country wants to change certain aspects of its domain names. Any changes carried out at the "top" level - adding new country-level suffixes, for example - have to be checked by the US Department of Commerce, which verifies that proper procedure has been followed. Once that check has been done, the actual implementation of the change is carried out by Verisign, a US-based private company that manages the root name database, which contains the full official list of recognised suffixes. "The US government could block a modification to this database," Minisci says. "So the US can, theoretically, decide who is on the internet and who isn't."

This unsatisfactory situation will be up for discussion by the parties involved in September 2009. So what can be done?

One drastic option would be to break the internet into chunks. A more realistic idea is for more governments to get involved with ICANN, while the most straightforward option would be for the US government to release its grip on ICANN. Milton Mueller, an internet governance expert at Syracuse University in New York, considers this outcome unlikely. "No one wants to let go. The thinking is that, at the crudest level, it's something under our control, so why mess with it?"

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