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ICANN vs. NSI -- The Net's First Civil War
Copyright (c) 1999 Jay Fenello -- All Rights Reserved

Over the last couple of weeks, a war has erupted over the very future of Cyberspace.

Not only have diverse organizations like Ralph Nader's CPT and Americans for Tax Reform gotten involved, but Congress has held two hearings, and launched an investigation into possible collusion at the Justice Department, and illegal fundraising by the Clinton administration.

To most casual observers, this appears to be a spat between the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and Network Solutions, Inc. (NSI).

In actuality, much, much more is at stake.

The story begins with the phenomenal success of the Internet.  What was once a sleepy, little research experiment funded by the U.S. Government, the Internet has grown to become a world-wide frontier of freedom, ideas, education, entertainment and commerce.

Along the way, the informal processes used to govern the Internet became obsolete.  And when governments and organizations tried to address the issues that required world-wide decisions, they realized that no-one was in charge!

To address this situation, a couple of alternatives were possible.  One involved getting legislation passed in over 200 countries throughout the world!  Not very likely, and certainly not very efficient.

Instead, the Clinton administration proposed a U.S. based, non-profit corporation to assume the management of the coordinated technical functions of the Internet. This new organization would use "flow down" contracts that would specify every right and obligation for anyone wishing to use the Internet.

Last year, Commerce decided that ICANN was to be this organization.  It has been embroiled in controversy ever since.

On the other side of this debate is NSI.  NSI was the recipient of a government Cooperative agreement, and had the exclusive rights to register all domains in the .com, .net, .org and .edu Top Level Domains (TLDs).  And while most people consider NSI an unfair monopoly in dire need of some competition, there was no such consensus about how to devolve their monopoly.

From ICANN's perspective, NSI is administering TLDs which belong to the public, TLDs that are under ICANN's control.  In other words,  ICANN is claiming superior ownership rights in *all* domain names.

ICANN's version of competition is to contract the administration of *their* TLDs to the lowest bidder, and to strictly license all domain name resellers, all while forcing Netizens to agree with some very heavy- handed policies in the process.

From NSI's perspective, they have built a business around registering domain names, and they have built certain Intellectual Property rights in their client information and in their brands.  For ICANN to claim superior rights on behalf of the "public" is simply an attempt to confiscate their property without just compensation.

NSI's version of competition involves new TLDs being introduced by ICANN, with competition between TLDs based on price and service as the result.

This, in a nutshell, describes the public fight. And it highlights two very different futures for the Internet.  In one, ICANN owns/controls the assets underlying the Internet -- the domain names, the IP addresses, and the protocol numbers.  This can be equated with a top-down, regulatory approach to Internet Governance.

In the other, private ownership/control is coordinated through a "consent of the governed" approach to Internet governance.  Individuals and organizations continue to own their respective Internet resources, and *choose* to interconnect based upon rules that are derived from a bottom-up consensus process.

That's what this debated comes down to -- public ownership vs. private ownership, Socialism vs. Capitalism, the rights of the state vs. the rights of the individual -- and it's not like we haven't explored these concepts before!

In many ways, the virtual world is simply a reflection of our real world.  Attempts to bring order to the chaos of cyberspace are exactly the same as attempts to bring order to the real world.

The Internet is the Internet because it embraces certain concepts -- freedom, private ownership, personal choice. The decisions we are about to make may change all of this.

Let's hope we choose wisely.


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