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"I Think ICANN, I Think ICANN"

November 1, 2000

Satire by
Lauren Weinstein


Greetings. Even as the dot-com washout continues to turn many instant billionaires into mere millionaires, the anguish over how the Internet should be managed and developed continues to simmer in the background, bubbling up towards a seemingly inevitable mess on the silicon stovetop. But for most users of the Web, the controversy can seem pretty arcane.

I tried to explain it to a fellow next to me in the checkout line at the local supermarket. He apparently assumed I knew something about technical issues based on my close inspection of a tabloid headline touting a new generation of cellphones using secret "Area 51" UFO technology.

His opening question threw me immediately. "Who runs the Internet, anyway?"

Ouch. Couldn't he have started off with something simpler? Perhaps something like, "Is there life after death?"

"Nobody really runs the Internet," I said, "it just kind of happens, sort of like traffic accidents."

The look on his face suggested he wasn't going to buy that. "The Net seems pretty messed up. I keep hearing about all these domain name fights and yelling about censorship and filters and all that stuff. Somebody must be running things so that we can blame someone!" he insisted.

"Well, a lot of Internet issues relate to a corporation called ICANN, based just a few miles from here in fact," I said. "They basically control most of the domain names and a lot of other matters tied to how the Net is run."

"Sounds like a pretty powerful group. How did they get to be in charge?"

This was getting worse and worse. How could I explain that something as important as the Internet, soon to be the foundation for so many aspects of our culture, had been largely organized based on the uncertainty principle?

"The folks who started ICANN were, well, just there at the right time, so the government let them keep doing what they'd been doing back when nobody outside of government and geeks cared much about it," I said. "Nowadays people really do care of course, so ICANN can demand people pay a non-refundable $50,000 just for a mere chance at possibly managing a new top-level domain, and lots of folks pay it too, to the tune of millions of dollars."

My questioner was getting visibly excited. "That sounds pretty cushy! How can I get a piece of that action?"

"Oh, you can't," I said. "Even though they recently had a sort of election, ICANN operates in pretty mysterious ways, even stranger than the multiple-item pricing in this store. The individuals in ICANN are all pretty decent folks, but when they get together the 'Magic 8-Ball' effect seems to take over: 'Answer cloudy, try again later'."

My new-found friend was clearly disappointed. "Well they must have rules ..."

"Rules? Sure. But remember playing back when you were a kid and there was always some brat who'd change the rules in the middle of a game just to make sure you couldn't win? Well, a lot of people think ICANN seems to operate that way."

"But how come the government puts up with this?"

"Which government do you mean? The U.S. government? This is all supposed to be private enterprise at its finest on this side of the pond. The Internet is global, and other governments may have their own ideas, but the Net started here and you certainly can't expect the private sector to give up control (and the big bucks) just to promote non-profit ideas like fairness and equality! What are you, some sort of hippie pinko do-gooder?"

He was beginning to see the light. "You have a point," he said. "It all starts to make sense when someone takes the time to explain it to me."

"Always glad to help," I said. "Happy shopping!"

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Lauren Weinstein

For information about the author, please see: http://www.vortex.com/lauren

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