title: Unhealthy tension
by: Scott Bradner
Congress held a hearing on the Internet on Feb 8th. Such a hearing is hardly a unique occurrence, but in this case, it is symptomatic of a growing problem.
This particular hearing was held by the House Telecommunications Subcommittee and was in response to the creation of new top-level Internet domains by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). (As an aside, the press coverage on this demonstrates why the press is held in such high regard (NOT). The Wall Street Journal called ICANN "the Internet Council for assigned Names and Numbers" and the New York Times insists, in an example of its 'we know better than you' attitude, on spelling ICANN as "Icann".)
The problem with this hearing is that ICANN was specifically set up as a non-governmental way to manage some of the mostly-technical aspects of the Internet. ICANN's board members are from around the world and its mandate is international. The Internet that ICANN deals with is international. Yet the US Congress, and other parts of the US government, insist on treating the Internet and ICANN as being under US jurisdiction.
I do not want to debate ICANN's virtues or lack of same but I am quite worried about the example being set and the attitude being legitimized. The US Congress holding this hearing is no better than a French court forcing Yahoo to censor what material they offer over the Internet or an Italian court claming jurisdiction over the entire Internet, both of which have happened in the last few months.
It is one thing for a country to tell its citizens that they are not permitted to go to (for example) the CNN web site because it has information on it that disagrees with some government position, to try to block access to the site by insisting that filters be placed on its international Internet links. Its altogether something different to claim that a government has the right to force CNN to close down when the CNN web site is not in their country.
The Wall Street Journal says that the Congress is "unlikely to reverse ICANN Internet names." Based on the reports, some House members clearly think they could if they wanted to. Since ICANN is based in the US I expect that these Congressmen could force ICANN to capitulate. But it would be extraordinarily short sighted for the Congress to do such a thing. They would just show the rest of the world that an individual country should be able to claim authority over the Internet. Having 280 countries follow this lead and pass conflicting regulations would be very bad for anyone trying to use or do business on the Internet. ThatŐs a tension we can do without. The best example that the Congress can set is to keep their hands off.
disclaimer: Luckily Harvard does not have much salutatory authority since some Harvard people would otherwise exercise it. But the above suggestion is mine not Harvard's.