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The root of all evil

Swedish Lars-Johan Liman gets 10.000 questions per second. The United States decides what to answer.


A dream is about to burst. A dream that ten years ago ignited thousands of youthful hearts when they heard "The Hackers' Manifesto" in the movie Hackers, and saw Angelina Jolie as Kate "Acid Burn" Libby. In the manifesto, the young hackers stated: "This is our world now. A world of electrons, switches and electronic beauty. We exist beyond nationality, skin color or religious inclinations.

Wizard. Today, almost a billion people use the Internet. 10.000 of them contact Swedes Lars-Johan Liman every second. He manages one of the Internet's most important "telephone directories" from Bellmansgatan 30 in Stockholm. But he can't decide the answers. It is the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) that does. Officially, ICANN is a private foundation, but there is no doubt who has the final say:

"All ICANN decisions must be approved by the US Department of Commerce," Liman told Ny Tid.

He is the system manager for Automica, which runs one of the world's thirteen "main directories" or root servers. There are those who delegate the computers to the right top-level domains, such as .no, .com or .org. And those are the ones who can theoretically remove a domain. If ICANN asks them to do so.

Internet War

During the 1999 Kosovo war, the US Department of Defense would not just drop bombs on Serbia. According to Liman, they would also remove the entire country from the Internet. Therefore, they contacted the US Department of Commerce.

- Fortunately, the Ministry of Trade said no. Still, I hope you find a more democratic solution eventually, you do not know what the future brings, says Liman.

In practice, ICANN can "remove" one country from the Internet. Or create a whole new one like the Bouvet eyes (.bv) or "Svalbard and Jan Mayen" (.sj). Or recognize countries that no one else has recognized before, such as the Faroe Islands (.fo) and Greenland (.gl). ICANN can also give political legitimacy to disputed areas such as Palestine (.ps) and Taiwan (.tw).

ICANN relies on the UN standardization organization ISO when selecting country codes. But it is ICANN who ultimately decides whether to use it. Or not.

For example, they may choose to keep ancient empires alive, such as the Soviet Union (.su).

As a curiosity, it can also be mentioned that North Korea does not currently have its own top level domain. ICANN has reserved .kp for the country, but no one would assume the responsibility of managing it.

The god of the internet

Even ICANN claims that they do not play a political role. Just an administrative one.

During this year, ICANN's contract with the US Department of Commerce expires. When the domains were distributed among the world's countries, in practice, only one person controlled the Internet, a professor of computer science at the University of Southern California, Jon Postel. "If the Internet has a god, then it's Jon Postel," declared the British magazine The Economist in 1997. Postel made key decisions such as who it is to govern a country's top domain. His reign lasted until 1998. It was Postel himself who decided it was time to abdicate. After a bitter tug of war between, among others, private business, states and NGOs around the world, the Clinton administration founded ICANN in 1998. According to an article in Foreign Affairs? (November 2005), the negotiations were so tough that Postel suffered a heart attack and died as they was closed. "Postel never got to see the organization he was so central to in the creation," writes Kenneth Neil Cuiker.

The result was that the thirteen root servers are now controlled by such diverse actors as NASA, universities, the US military, voluntary organizations and private companies. This includes Swedish Autonomica, which was established as a private foundation in 2000. According to Liman, the name signifies that they are independent.

- We will not make money and we will be completely independent in relation to what the Swedish state decides, Liman says.

Under the wings of the UN

As the world seriously understood the importance of the Internet, the struggle for who was to control it also began. Critics believe that ICANN lacks democratic legitimacy. Civil organizations believe that ICANN is in the pockets of private business. The industry feels that the organization is far too governmental. And the rest of the world's nations feel that they are powerless to the private foundation. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was one of those who faced criticism. He stated that ICANN's rule is an expression of neo-colonialism.

In November 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan created a group of 40 people to look more closely at who would control the Internet. Not surprisingly, the conclusion was that ICANN should be under the wings of the UN.

The United States is in power

Washington actually planned to relinquish power over ICANN in 2006, but the more other countries demand their share of the cake, the more they hold it. Discussion around ICANN reached its preliminary peak at the World Summit on the Information Society conference in Tunis just before Christmas. Many, including EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, warned that the Internet could collapse if the US was unwilling to relinquish power. But power is not always easy to give up. During the conference, the United States announced that they would retain overall oversight of ICANN.

The UN then decided to set up a group called the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to help the various countries to present their views on the Internet to ICANN, among others. The first IGF meeting will be in mid-February this year.

World Wide Iran

- If the Internet does not become more democratic, we may risk countries such as India, China and Iran creating their own network systems, says Daniel Apollon to Ny Tid.

He is head of research for the Department of Information Technology at the University of Bergen. He believes that we will increasingly have a global movement that will require a more democratic governance of the Internet.

- It is a strong civil movement that demands greater democratic control over the Internet. And it will be bigger, says Apollon.

Internet researcher and university lecturer at the University of Oslo, Gisle Hannemyr, does not share Apollon's views.

- Until now, the current scheme has ticked and gone without problems. The United States has not shown any willingness to censor the web. China and Iran, on the other hand, are actively trying to censor the Internet, says Hannemyr.

He believes that it is best if the current scheme is continued.

- As long as nothing dramatic happens, it is safest if the scheme continues. ICANN is a private foundation and not controlled by the United States, says Hannemyr, who points out that the general manager of ICANN, Paul Twomay, is Australian.

The activity in ICANN is overlooked by a committee, the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), where most countries in the world, including Norway, have a seat. GAC is led by Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi of Malaysia.

- GAC meets several times a year in different parts of the world and has a great influence on ICANN's decisions, says Hannemyr.

In the unlikely future

But what about Liman controlling the Swedish root server. Can he turn off Norway?

- In theory, I can. But it would be pure hell. Besides, the other root servers would find out right away and the users could only retrieve the information there instead, says Liman. He compares the relationship between the root servers with the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

- Actually, it is like a kind of built-in terrorist balance. The thirteen root servers are run by very different organizations. Everything from NASA to Universities and voluntary foundations. If one of them does some nonsense, the others will discover it right away, Liman says.

But what do we do if ICANN decides to turn it off?

- In principle, there is nothing in the way that we could control our own root servers in Europe, if the instructions that came from the United States were incompatible with freedom of expression and democracy. However, there is nothing to indicate that ICANN will act in ways that will make such a step necessary, says the Norwegian internet researcher Hannemyr.

Swedish Liman also sees the opportunity:

- Yes, yes… In theory, I could have turned off the contact with the USA, says Liman.

Read more in the paper edition which can be purchased in Narvesen, 7-eleven, Deli de Lucia and in a number of grocery chains throughout Norway.

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