Declining The Crown

My piece on Esther Dyson, “Queen of the World,” drew a response from its subject. The short form of the response: She declines the honor. (I had such great ideas for a crown, too…)

In case you missed it, I wrote that the power to settle domain name disputes, and take away names through contracts, might be the first step toward an Internet government, taking as my text a Business Week editorial to that effect.

ICANN is quite constrained, by bylaws, accountability, a requirement for consensus, and the fact that we can’t impose rules; we have to get people to sign contracts to implement them,” Ms. Dyson replied.

Playing devil’s advocate, I suggested that consensus could still build contracts with the power of government behind them, a Constitution of the Internet. “Thanks,” she replied, but no thanks.

“The point really is that we *don’t* govern people; we set policies for resources. Yes, there’s some overlap, and taking away people’s domain names can be a real problem. That’s why we are limiting the grounds on which we can do so – starting with the fact that we don’t have any control over individual domain names. We *do* have contracts with the registrars who register them that include dispute-resolution policies that deal with trademark rights and domain registrations, but *not* (except for evidence of *commercial* trademark infringement) with the content on the sites, whether they violated copyright, etc. etc.”

OK, I can take a hint. (Although the idea of a leader who doesn’t want the job has enormous appeal to me.) But that still leaves important questions of Internet governance unanswered. How do we avoid future “cyberwars,” for instance, in which nations covertly or overtly attack one another’s servers? Aren’t spammers who steal the Internet resources for their scams waging a form of “cyberwar” on everyone? When Serbs started sending spam during the Kosovo conflict early this year those problems came together for me. When “cyber-terrorists” threaten us all, who will fight them?

There are also basic questions of speech and commerce where, when borders are crossed, legal becomes illegal. Americans fear Australian gambling sites, and Australians fear American porn. Germans don’t want “Mein Kampf,” Brits don’t want books that violate its Official Secrets Act, and there are nations where the Christian Bible is considered subversive. No nation is fully equipped to defend its borders from all the ideas and goods it fears. As the Internet grows, these disputes will gain a higher profile, and the chance for conflict – carried out within the Internet – will also grow.

Right now the Internet is highly anarchic, and there are many people who like that. I happen to be one of them. But just as there is little law to control individuals, there’s also no law to constrain national governments’ actions online. In the end, I’m a lot more afraid of national governments than any rules Esther Dyson might create for us.

ICANN has declined power, but the vacuum remains. The question that must be asked is what (and who) will fill it?

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