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Fear and Loathing in the DNS

It's only occasionally that an article crops up which is so completely clueless that my hackles are raised. But some drivel in the online issue of The Weekly Standard has really hit rock bottom in terms of factual inaccuracy, idiotic bias and nationalistic tunnel-vision. The article's title is "Who Controls the Internet?" and consists of nothing more than opinionated, uninformed FUD on the politics of the management of the DNS - the global domain name system which lies at the heart of the Internet.

Ariel Rabkin starts:

In order to please our European allies and our Third World critics, the Obama administration may be tempted to surrender one particular manifestation of American "dominance": central management of key aspects of the Internet by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Let's get something clear here: the US people comprise 5% of the world's population. That means 95% of the world's inhabitants are disenfranchised from the institutions which control one of the few things which has any claim to be at the core of the Internet's operation. Please remove your cultural blinkers for a moment and bring yourself to realise that if control of the DNS were in French, German or British hands, you wouldn't be happy about it.

Early this year, British cabinet member Andy Burnham told the Daily Telegraph that he was "planning to negotiate with Barack Obama's incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites."

Andy Burnham is - to quote a previous holder of the same position - Minister of Fun, and the Telegraph is often known as the Daily Torygraph on account of its cringingly overt political biasses. Burnham can blab all he wants and make silly remarks like this, but that won't make people take him or his position any more seriously. Shame on you for attempting to mislead people into believing that this person wields any real influence in British politics.

America's special role in managing the Internet is good for America and good for the world.

Let's substitute "France" instead: "France's special role in managing the Internet is good for France and good for the world". Are you happy with this idea? What about China? "China's special role in managing the Internet is good for China and good for the world". Feeling comfortable yet?

Did I mention that the USA hosts less than 14% of all Internet users worldwide, as of May 2009? And that percentage is shrinking.

Until now, the management of the Domain Name System has been largely apolitical, and most of the disputes that have arisen have been of interest only to insiders and the technology industry.

Wot??! I mean, wtf??!??!

DNS politics are notorious both inside and outside the Internet industry, and have been for years. Just because you didn't realise this or bother to do any research into your article doesn't make it any less true.

Political questions like "Who is the rightful government of Pakistan, and therefore the rightful owner of the .pk domain?" are settled by the U.S. Department of State.

How would you feel about 'Political questions like "Who is the rightful government of the USA, and therefore the rightful owner of the .us domain?" are settled by the Russian Ministry of Commerce'? Perhaps you just don't understand how laughably arrogant your statement is?

There are persistent proposals to break the connection between IANA and the U.S. government.

Golly, can't think why. Can you? Maybe it's because:

There have been no serious complaints about American stewardship of the Internet, no actual abuses perpetrated by American overseers.

Interesting position. What about January 28, 2003 when the US DoC granted control of IANA to ICANN for three years without any tender or evaluation process, and with only 10 days to lodge objections. What made this all the more alarming was that the notice was posted on the tender procurement web site for NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; my recollection from the time was that the site was non-searchable, and that the quickest way to get to this notice took 7 link-clicks from the home page of the procurement web site.I haven't bothered to do a web search, but here's a nickel, kid: go get yourself a search engine and do it yourself. I think you need the practice.

And what about the time in 2001 that ICANN signed away presumptive renewal to Verisign for the contract to operate the .com and .net registries, making any future potential attempts to move control to a third party almost impossible without extensive litigation? Or what about the right in this contract for Verisign to increase their fees for .com and .net domains by 7% annually? Does this count as good stewardship? Or the time that ICANN notoriously refused to show one of its directors the company accounts and the director in question actually had to bring the company to court to force them to show him the accounts? For many years, there was a litany of complaints against abusive and inappropriate behaviour on the part of ICANN and the US DoC

Domain names sometimes present political questions. Which side in a civil war should control Pakistan's Internet domain? Should Israel's .il be suspended as punishment for its being an "Apartheid state"? What about Taiwan's .tw if China announces an attempt to "reabsorb its wayward province"?

Come off it. This is FUD. Bad quality FUD too.

Perhaps most serious, control of Internet names could become a lever to impose restrictions on Internet content. Many governments already attempt to control speech on the Internet. Some years ago, Yahoo! was subject to criminal proceedings in France for allowing Nazi memorabilia to be auctioned on its website. Britain, Canada, and Australia all have mandatory nationwide blacklists of banned sites, managed by nongovernmental regulators with minimal political oversight.

Oh really? 8 months ago, a district judge in Kentucky ordered several out-of-state DNS registrars to hand over control of 141 domain names to the State of Kentucky, and those registrars complied. The companies who owned these domain names all had three things in common: none had any prior connection to Kentucky, all operated fully legally in the countries where they were based, and all were totally screwed over by the Kentucky state prosecutor.

And on the subject of filtering, the State of Pennsylvania ordered all access providers operating in the state to operate IP address filters with the intention of blocking access to web sites which were reported to have hosted child porn. Problem was that by mandating IP address blocking, they inadvertantly blocked access to about a million other sites. That was 2004. But they're still at it today, and they're not the only state doing it either.

You mentioned non-governmental regulators with minimal political oversight. Does NCMEC count here? They have a voluntary block list, like the voluntary block list in the UK. And you seem to have forgotten to mention that the mandatory block list in Australia is proving so unpopular that it seems likely that it's going to be abandoned.

Sadly, the rest of this article quickly descends into a tunnel-visioned xenophobic rant, extolling the unassailable virtues of the USA and the inevitable inferiority of other nations and their pitiable legal systems. It would be nice to say that there was anything useful there, but there isn't. It's a content-free zone, folks.  Nothing to see.

Here's some advice: go out, travel the world and enjoy some other cultures for a couple of years. After this, and after you've taken the time to do the really basic research that your article completely lacks, why not have another go at doing a write-up on this topic? The only thing that this article really says is that your clue-level on DNS politics is precisely zero.

Oh, and while you're at it, could you do everyone a favour and tone-down the happy-clappy flag-waving?  Thanks.

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