Online Governance: Is the Internet Controllable?

Please have your passport ready for inspection as you enter the Internet. Wait, what are we saying? The Internet is one of the few domains, whether real or virtual, where travelers are not obliged to go through immigration, justify citizenship or apply for visas. In a sense, that ultimate freedom means that the Internet was born a dinosaur – a relic of when nomads roamed the earth and the only border controls were rivers or mountains. But today’s nations have already carved up physical space on earth and it looks like cyberspace may be the next target.
The Shadow of the ITU over the Web
The International Telecommunication Union or ITU is the part of the United Nations that is concerned with telecoms and telecoms policy around the world. For example, it determines radio spectrum allocations and makes sure that users don’t step on each other’s toes. If there is a telecom or networking issue that concerns the world at large, the ITU would like to be in on it. However, the Internet has never been part of the ITU remit. This uncomfortable (for the ITU) state of affairs has led to attempts to bring the web under the ITU wing.
Governments Who Want to Take Control
If the ITU were to take control of the Internet, this would be equivalent to government control, simply because governments decide what the ITU does. Some of them are more vocal than others. In 2010, Russia and Saudi Arabia pushed for parts of the Internet to be controlled by the ITU. Russia is also proposing that the ITU becomes the go-to resource for IP addresses, replacing the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) that currently hand them out. These five RIRs correspond to the five regions in the world, which balances power out reasonably well. ITU hegemony would be a major change.
Anything You Can Do, ICANN Do Better…
Meanwhile, there is another key part of the Internet machinery that is firmly lodged in the US and closely linked with the US Department of Commerce. ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is responsible among other things for the attribution of new top level domain names (TLDs). The classic example of a TLD is “.com”, but in theory the field is wide open to candidates such as ‘.movie’ or ‘.club’. ICANN has indeed been moving towards a plan to significantly increase the number of such TLDs by allowing them to be formed with “almost any word in any language.”
Land Grabs and Speculators: Will the Internet Expand or Contract?
Speculators are attracted by the possibility of registering desirable TLDs to be resold at a profit to other users afterwards. The kind of virtual real estate that ICANN wants to create sparks concerns of a commercial ‘land grab’ that is at odds with the original spirit of the Internet. Overall, opinions seem divided. Amazon and Google between them have applied for 179 TLDs (at a cost of 185,000 USD each). 79 other companies, including The Coca-Cola Company, Hewlett-Packard and Samsung, signed a petition against ICANN’s new TLD program. All these different forces push the Internet one way and another. Who knows, perhaps the combined speculation and regulation will push users to leave the current Internet and search for a new cyberspace free of such commercial and political interests, and leaving today’s Internet to gradually collapse in on itself.