By: Spencer Kennedy
At this point it time, it doesn’t matter if you are an engineer or a writer, a teacher or a student, conservative or liberal; the Internet is either already a cornerstone of your daily life or will soon become one. Ranging from entertainment to news, from leisure to business, the Internet finds itself deeply integrated within most aspects of modern society. Usually touted for its interconnected and instantaneous nature, the Net has been increasingly scrutinized over the past few years. Events such as the Snowden-NSA revelations and the collapse of drug-haven Silk Road have drawn attention to issues such as individual privacy, government transparency, and decentralization of the web. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg, and are all rooted in the same fundamental problem: who controls the Internet?
Delving into any one of these single issues would require far too much time, so we can look for an answer to the above question in the context of a recent article from The Guardian [http://bit.ly/1gutYCT]. The article focuses on the role of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which essentially determines how websites are labelled and fit into the current network of networks. ICANN is a private company based in the United States, yet oversees the placement, coordination, and maintenance of all websites worldwide. Basically, one company in Los Angeles, California controls the massive informational hierarchy that is the Internet; one American company decides which websites – domestic and foreign – get the most valuable identification numbers and common names. Do you see a problem here?
Again, this is a simplified overview, but that is one accurate way to approach the question of who controls the Internet. Historically, the military was behind the wheel of the Net. Then, media and technology front-runners found a way in. And of course, the government had a role (and inherently should). There is nothing wrong with this picture, until you consider that these are almost entirely American enterprises, despite the fact that the Internet has reached a global scale. Think, ICANN – the hall monitor of the Internet – is a private company located in the U.S.
It is one thing to worry about Internet fairness and equality in the United States, a problem that has too many angles already. Americans have fought off SOPA [http://bit.ly/1cL2aKU] and are still battling FISA [http://bit.ly/1gSE6qB]. Now consider the added complexities when similar issues are framed in a global context. The U.S. Government has authority over its citizens – regardless of whether we support or criticize a particular law – but does not have the right to govern other sovereign states. In light of the NSA leaks and revelations of America spying on its own allies (Germany), other countries are raising the issue of a U.S.-dominated Internet. They are calling for a more transparent and horizontal governance of the supposedly “free” Net.
This issue is more than just a privacy issue, or a monopoly issue; my goal wasn’t to unearth a single underlying problem and solution to the current state of the Internet – some people may not see any problems at all. What I believe, however, is that the articles and issues I referenced above all imply that the Internet – originally intended to be a democratizing and nonhierarchical force – is becoming an unbalanced landscape, with the U.S. wielding most of the power. I cannot reiterate enough that the perspectives and levels of analysis in this situation are endless, but it is clear that governance of the Internet is not in a state of equilibrium. Depending on where you look, expect to see more of this in the news.