Monday, October 17, 2016
Internet Technical Governance: ICANN Says "I can," But Can It?
At a time when politics seems to have gotten into everything, like sand after a trip to the beach, it's not too surprising to hear that Senator Ted Cruz and some state attorneys general have seized upon a largely technical issue involving the Internet domain name system (DNS), specifically the transfer of supervision from the U. S. Department of Commerce to an independent non-profit organization called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). This matter highlights a little-known fact about engineers: they often handle political matters a good deal better than many politicians do.
I still think the best definition of politics is one I heard from my eighth-grade civics teacher: "Politics is just the conduct of public affairs." In the nature of something as widespread and influential as the Internet, in one sense every issue affecting its operation and integrity is political, in that it could potentially affect every user. But that is not the usual sense in which the word is used.
The facts of the issue are these. When you type in a URL that uses letters that stand some chance of being understood by a normal human (e. g. www.google.com) the Domain Name System is sort of like a phone book in which network computers look up the URLs that are linked to numbers that computers actually use. Up until a couple of weeks ago (Oct. 1, to be exact), certain operations pertaining to the assignment of domain names and other more technical matters were performed under the supervision of the U. S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), through a contract with the already-existing ICANN, a nonprofit organization based in California. This tie to the U. S. government was viewed by some as a liability, in that it has led in the past to calls from Russia and China to transfer supervision of ICANN to a United Nations agency called the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). (You can tell there's engineers involved by the number of alphabet-soup outfits in this piece.) Partly to counter this, for many years both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations have been moving to cut the last formal ties between the Department of Commerce and ICANN, and finally a date was set: October 1 of this year.
For reasons known best to themselves, but possibly having to do with businesses which were not happy with how domain-name disputes turned out, the attorneys general of the states of Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas filed suit to block the transfer. But a federal judge denied the request and for two weeks now, ICANN has been running without its former Department of Commerce supervision. I for one have not noticed any big changes, but it was never the kind of thing that was supposed to lead to the sudden appearance of massive censorship on the Internet in the first place.
While the assigning of Internet domain names and keeping them straight on the "root servers" could conceivably be manipulated for devious or sinister purposes, I am unaware of any major instances of this. As numerous reports pointed out, Internet censorship of the type that goes on in China or Egypt from time to time is committed by the host governments, not ICANN, and there's nothing ICANN can do about it if a sovereign government chooses to pull their Internet plug. I won't say that the concerns of Sen. Cruz and company are entirely without merit, but it's one of those things that can't be predicted in advance.
So far, ICANN, and many other technical matters pertaining to the Internet, seem to have been run in a way that is familiar to many engineers, but little known outside the engineering community. There is not a single term that describes this process, but the phrases "consensus," "just-in-time governance," and "ad-hoc committees" pertain to it. It is most prominent in the development of engineering standards, which the Internet vitally depends on.
Many times in the course of engineering history a need for a standard has arisen. Technology gives rise to a new capability—precisely-machined screw threads, or radio transmissions, or computer networks—but it will work in a widespread way only if the parties making and using the technology agree on certain standards so everybody's screws will fit, or everybody's computer can talk to the others without a lot of fuss. So engineers have learned to form standards committees whose members have in mind both technical knowledge and the interests of private and public entities concerned with the new technology. These committees are very lean organizations—usually the members' firms or departments pay for their participation, so there is little or nothing in the way of staff, buildings, or tax money involved. The committee meets as long as it takes to figure out a standard, agrees on it, and then publishes its results and in effect says, "If you want to play this new game, here are the rules." The committee disbands, often, and life goes on, only better than before because now there's a new standard that engineers can use to implement a new technology.
Because these standards committees work almost entirely out of the public eye, most people don't even know they exist. But without them, we wouldn't have, well, most of the highly sophisticated technology we have. Wireless networks depend on standards. The Internet depends on standards. Electric power depends on standards (the battle of Westinghouse's AC versus Edison's DC was in large part an issue of standards). And all these things get done almost invisibly, without much publicity or public expense.
Some political scientists have floated the idea of adopting the engineering-standard style of governance to more public matters, and they may have a point. As anyone who has attended standards meetings can attest, they are not without controversy. But by and large, standards organizations and technical outfits such as ICANN operate in this mode successfully and efficiently. And unless future events prove otherwise, it's likely that the fears of Sen. Cruz and company will turn out to be groundless.
I hope ICANN can keep doing its generally good job without the Department of Commerce looking over its shoulder any more. Instead of politicians making politics out of what looks to be a smoothly-functioning situation, perhaps we could encourage them to ask how engineers deal with technical matters that have political aspects, and learn something about how to get work done. But at this point in history, it might be too much to ask.