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The Net's First Civil War

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 

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.  


Jay Fenello
President, Iperdome, Inc.    404-943-0524
What's your .per(sm)?   http://www.iperdome.com 

"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
-George Santayana