The laptop on which I’m working tells me that it has sent 7,392 email messages to date, and if I knew how to reach its innermost parts it would probably provide a rather embarrassing list of every website it has ever visited on my behalf as well. Like most internet users, I have absolutely no idea how any of that traffic actually happened. I have a fantasy that it involves satellites in space and bunkers deep underground, full of scary professors and beautiful girls in lycra spacesuits dancing attendance on giant computers; and I sometimes wonder whether my cyber-correspondence is being monitored for key words (‘jihad’ perhaps, or ‘Galloway bank account’) at GCHQ Cheltenham or Langley, Virginia.
But on the whole I am content to use this almost free conduit of information, commerce, entertainment and personal contact without knowing anything at all about how it works or who controls it. There must be at least 17,000 people who take a different view, however, for that is the number who converged on Tunis last week for the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society. Many of them — representing smaller nations or ‘civil society’ pressure groups and NGOs — were driven by a fervent desire to see control of the internet removed from what they perceive to be the evil hand of the US government and placed instead under a new body modelled on the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency which efficiently co-ordinates the world’s telephone networks.
That sounds like a jolly sensible proposition, you may be thinking, if the internet really is controlled by Rumsfeld and Cheney and those other goons who yank George W. Bush’s strings. Well, not exactly. The body which allocates domain names (the suffixes such as ‘.uk’, which form the architecture of the system) and the numerical codes behind them is itself a not-for-profit, non-governmental organisation, called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) and based in Marina del Rey, California. Icann was established by the Clinton administration in 1998 to formalise a role previously fulfilled by an informal network of boffins led by a lone professor at the University of Southern California.
Though it operates under Californian state law and responds to signals from the federal government — it recently backtracked on a decision to introduce ‘.xxx’ suffixes for porn sites, after pressure from Washington — Icann is by no means exclusive in its national allegiance. Its chairman, Vinton Cerf, is an American who doubles as the official ‘internet evangelist’ of Google, but its chief executive, Paul Twomey, is a former official of the Australian Trade Commission, and its board holds more exotic passports than a Premiership football team. Likewise the 13 ‘root name servers’, the big computers which direct traffic around the internet: one of these is run by a US army research laboratory at Aberdeen, Maryland, and another by Nasa, the US space agency, but the other 11 are run by companies and private-sector institutions using hardware distributed all over the world.
So why were delegates at Tunis so anxious to overturn these arrangements? What is so sinister? There is a theoretical danger that the Pentagon might one day order Icann to switch off all internet addresses belonging to the government of Iran or some other supposed enemy, but that could turn out to be technically impossible, since there is already a European-based ‘open root server network’ designed to operate independently of Icann in such an eventuality. There is an obvious risk of covert US surveillance of internet traffic but, frankly, if the National Security Agency is not already capable of doing that — whoever runs the internet and wherever its base stations happen to be — then Americans are not getting much value for their tax dollars.
Finally, there is an argument that the system is designed in a way which somehow favours US economic interests and disadvantages poorer nations, though no one has really explained how that theory works, since the internet is (unlike, say, the global pharmaceutical industry) a genuinely free market. It has multiple, competitive suppliers of all the equipment and skills required, few barriers to new entrants, and many practical applications relevant to healthcare, education and emergency relief in the Third World. All that is required for participation is a telephone network and sufficient economic and political stability to allow entrepreneurs to get started; the internet is, in effect, America’s gift to the world’s poor.
In short, the case against the way the internet is now run simply does not stand up. Techies nostalgic for the free spirit of its early days criticise Icann for becoming overly bureaucratic in its decision-making processes, but it can hardly be said to have done a bad job. The truth is that the pressure for change that bubbled up ahead of the Tunis gathering was (like so much of the rhetoric, rather than the serious science, of the climate change debate) little more than an outburst of anti-Americanism in a new guise.
The EU initially joined the bandwagon, declaring itself in favour of creating a new international regulatory body to take over from Icann. But most of the noise was coming from non-Western governments whose real agenda was to express hostility to Washington while claiming the right to control internet access and content within their own borders for the purposes of repression — China, Iran, Cuba and Syria to the fore. Even Robert Mugabe popped up, like a Spitting Image puppet of himself, to describe the current arrangements as an instrument of ‘neo-colonialism’. American officials recognised what was afoot and declared firmly that they would not contemplate any significant change in the Icann regime.
Fortunately, common sense prevailed in Tunis, helped perhaps by the fact that the UN had chosen as the venue for this celebration of ‘the Information Society’ a country which offers its own citizens as little information about their own circumstances as possible. Tunisia — as the Swiss Prime Minister bravely pointed out in his opening address to the conference — has an appalling human rights record and a pathetically cowed press. Recent beatings and jailings of dissidents were a vivid reminder of the UN’s blindness to its vociferous members’ misdeeds. As for its ability to co-ordinate any large-scale undertaking efficiently and fairly these days, critics pointed to the scandal of the oil-for-food programme in Iraq, while those who cited the International Telecommunication Union as a counterexample had to admit that the ITU had already been operating successfully for 82 years before it was adopted as a UN agency in 1947.
So the EU delegation — led by a cautious official from our own Department of Trade and Industry, David Hendon, and apparently prompted by a stern letter from Condoleezza Rice — hedged its position, and the conference settled for creating a powerless talking shop on internet governance issues while leaving Icann to get on with its job.
The nature of that job is to keep the internet tidy by maintaining a logical system of codes and operating standards, but that hardly amounts to ‘control’ as understood by most of the UN’s members. The beauty of the internet is that it has been allowed to develop purely in response to market signals and technological possibilities, free of almost all attempts to regulate it, tax it, interfere with its content or fix the prices consumers pay for it. As a result, it gives people what they want (some of it corrupting and bad, most of it informative and good) at the lowest possible cost. It is a mighty engine of progress and it is, in effect, controlled by it s users: by a leaderless tribe of software engineers, network managers and salespeople in thousands of companies and organisations around the world and, beyond them, by you and me.
In the modern world, that is a minor miracle; all governments should recognise it as such and keep their hands off.