U.S. should keep its hands off ICANN

Congress held a hearing on the Internet on Feb. 8. 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 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 U.S. Congress, and other parts of the U.S. government, insists on treating the Internet and ICANN as being under U.S. jurisdiction. I don’t want to debate ICANN’s virtues or lack of them, but I am worried about the example being set and the attitude being legitimized.

The U.S. Congress holding this hearing is no better than a French court forcing Yahoo Inc. to censor what material it offers over the Internet or an Italian court claiming jurisdiction over the entire Internet, both of which have happened in recent months.

It’s one thing for a country to tell its citizens they’re not permitted to go, for example, to the CNN Web site because it includes information that disagrees with some government position, and to try to block access to the site by insisting that filters be placed on its international Internet links. It’s 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 that government’s country.

The Wall Street Journal says Congress is “unlikely to reverse ICANN Internet names.” But based on the reports, some U.S. House members clearly think they could if they wanted to. Because ICANN is based in the U.S., I expect that Congress could force ICANN to capitulate. But it would be extraordinarily shortsighted for Congress to do such a thing.

The U.S. Congress 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. That’s a tension we can do without. The best example that Congress can set is to keep its hands off.

Disclaimer: Luckily, Harvard does not have much salutatory authority because some Harvard people would otherwise exercise it. But the above suggestion is mine, not Harvard’s.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.