Putting the genie back in the bottle
This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 12, 2002
There's talk now that the U.S. government may want the Internet back.
Well, maybe not back but Congress is holding hearings on whether the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN for short) is doing its job in supervising the Internet's navigation system.
Meanwhile, at last count, 14 civic groups have petitioned the federal Commerce Department to "reconsider" its 1998 decision to award the contract to supervise the Internet to ICANN and re-open bidding.
While ICANN does have its problems accountability being chief among them it seems a little late for the U.S. government to try to take the Internet back under its wing. It's true that the Internet was developed by a unit of the Defense Department in the late 1960s. But it's also true that since the Internet was opened to the public a decade ago, and to commercial activity a few years after that, it has not only grown exponentially, but changed in its very nature.
The Internet is no longer what it was and because of the depth of the changes it's undergone, it seems highly unlikely that even the powerful United States government would be able to regain control over it.
For the Internet or at least the technology to run it is now out there in the public domain. Besides which, there is no "there" to the Internet the 'Net is no more than a series of relationships and connections between computers. The number of connections that comprise the Internet is now so vast that there are simply too many for the feds to ever be able to shut it down.
Even if the federal government stripped ICANN of its contract to run the address naming system, should the big ISPs and other major hubs of the 'Net decide to continue running their systems as before there's really not much the federal government could do about it.
The point is this: The Internet no longer belongs to the United States government. It doesn't even belong to the American people anymore.
The Internet is an international commons belonging to all the people of the world.
Fixing the system
Which isn't to say that there aren't improvements to be made. It's just that whatever they are, they need to be decided on and implemented by those most heavily involved in the online world not our government, not any government.
It is truly ironic that the above-mentioned activist organizations are calling on the federal government to fix the system. It was the activist community that originally pressured the government to release the Internet to the world to kick it out of the nest, and force it to learn to fly on its own.
Now that ICANN has grown unresponsive (cancelling elections this past spring, and generally acting the way any bloated, overgrown bureaucracy will act), the grass-roots groups have turned back into constituents, asking for intercession by the government.
That seems unlikely to work, however, given the reluctance of other nations to adhere to American dictates.
Precedent for independence
Those who were online before the Internet was open to the public in the early '90s may remember the Fidonet. Fidonet was the creation of the BBS (computer Bulletin Board Systems) community in response to the off-limits nature of the Internet in the 1980s. The Fidonet basically bypassed the then-private Internet and created its own global cybercommons.
With the Fidonet, anyone with an account on a member BBS had access to global e-mail. And rather than limiting their members to local conversation groups, affiliated BBSs could carry Fidonet newsgroups meaning that with a single local call to your nearby BBS, you could engage in online conversations with folks from around the world.
The genius of Fidonet was the fact that it was largely automated. Each BBS system operator who wanted to add her/his system to the Fidonet would sign up and receive an address assignment for the BBS. After that, it was a simple matter of setting up the BBS software (most included fairly decent scripting languages not unlike today's VisualBASIC) to automatically call the next BBS in the system to send and receive e-mail and newsgroup messages.
It was slower than today's integrated Internet, but still remarkably efficient for the times. (All the more so when you consider that the Fidonet was largely running on 16- and 25MHz machines, most of which had 16 Megs or less RAM. And that most of these BBSs at the time had 2,400bps modems) There was no body to set rules, no ICANN to hide itself away from the repercussions of its actions. Instead, much like today's Usenet (the newsgroup area of the Internet), the Fidonet was self-governed, self-policed.
And Fidonet wasn't the only indepedent BBS-based network set up to replicate the utility and power of the Internet in a time when the Internet was still closed to the public. There were dozens of other nets out there, usually focused around interests Christianity, Star Trek and online gaming all had their own networks. Since each BBS network system generally had its own set of newsgroups, many BBSs belonged to more than one so they could offer their users as broad a collection of newsgroups as possible.
The fact that it's been done before leads me to believe that if enough folks don't like the way the Internet infrastructure is being supervised, it's likely we'll see something analogous to the Fidonet arise once again.
What to do about ICANN?
But it seems clear that the day when the government could step in and fix the Internet has long since passed us by.
Groups concerned about ICANN's performance will probably, in the long run, have to engage ICANN itself and bring about change from within. That will be more difficult than having Congress fix it but it will also be more likely to have those changes prove permanent.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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