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Jonathan Zittrain on U.N., Net governance: "I don't get it"

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-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Internet governance and WSIS
Date: Tue, 08 Nov 2005 17:11:52 -0500
From: Jonathan Zittrain </obscured/z/obscured/@oii.ox.ac.uk>
To: declan@well.com

some thoughts for politech, if you think them appropriate --


I confess, I don't get it.

Much has been written about the apparent desire by the United
Nations, spurred by China, Cuba, and other informationally repressive
regimes, to "take control of the Internet." Oddly, the concrete focus of
this battle -- now the topic of a Senate resolution! -- is a comparatively
trivial if basic part of Net architecture: the domain name system.  The
spotlight on domain name management is largely a combination of
historical accident and the unfortunate assignment of country code
domains like .uk and .eu, geographically-grounded codes that give the
illusion of government outposts and control in cyberspace.

The most important parts of the domain name system are naturally
resistant to unwanted control: if Dr. Evil (or the UN, whichever is
thought worse) hijacked the precious "root zone" file of the domain
name system, the Internet Service Providers of the world wouldn't bat
an eye -- any more than the United States would be without its
Constitution if the original copy at the National Archives were
destroyed, or a 28th Amendment scrawled onto its parchment by a vandal
with the expectation that it would thereby become law.

Is there a threat of governments, particular repressive ones, ruining
the Internet?  Absolutely.  Controlling the Internet for real means
controlling its fundamental protocols -- which is to say, controlling
Internet Service Providers around the world, or the manufacturers
like Cisco and Juniper who make the hardware that such providers use
to bring the Internet to their subscribers.  China is hard at work on
doing just that, with mixed results, and even the most liberal
democracies have digital content or activities that they would like
to constrain.  The best thing that could come out of something like
the World Summit is a commitment to the free exchange of bits,
something to be disallowed only on narrowly constrained
circumstances.  Providers of services on the Internet could benefit
from a set of best practices modeled after the Sullivan Principles by
which many companies sought to engage with South Africa during
Apartheid: principles that would say what limits would be appropriate
on Western assistance to Chinese Internet censorship.

But as for the cries that the US must maintain control of the domain
name system root or face a "digital Munich" -- they are better
directed to the many ways, large and small, in which Internet freedom
is threatened one access point at a time.  Seems to me that it's
a benefit when the diplomats and politicians are busy arguing about
such an unimportant corner of the digital sand box -- exactly, I think,
what some of the technical crew intended when they peeled off domain
name management and made ICANN a lightning rod to draw attention
away from the real work.  ...JZ

Jonathan Zittrain
Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation
   Oxford University
Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Visiting Professor for Entrepreneurial
Legal Studies
   Harvard Law School

Posted by Declan McCullagh on Nov 08, 2005

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