Byte M.E.

Save the internet from the dark side

Gulf News

There’s a dark and sinister force on the move this week, and it’s looking to take over the Internet. No, it’s not Anonymous. It’s called the ITU, which stands for International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the United Nations. It’s responsible for information and communication technologies, and they’re holding a conference here in Dubai this week. You’ve never heard of them? Great. I’ll explain – Star Wars-style. Start the scroll.

Episode I – A Phantom Menace

A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far way, there was an evil trade federation. It was called AT&T, and it ruled the phone lines with an iron fist.

But AT&T was defeated in Battle of Carterfone in the US Supreme Court in 1968. After the battle, AT&T was forced to allow people to plug these weird and noisy contraptions, called modems, into AT&T’s phone network. Nerds around the US started plugging their modems in, allowing the world for the first time to go online. Problem was, this was 1968. There was nothing to log into.

But just one year later, in an effort to build a decentralized computer network, ARPANET was born and the Internet was created. For years the Internet was controlled by the US government, but in 1995 it handled control over to a rather benevolent if boned-headed organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN.

Since then, kingdoms built on the Internet has risen and fallen. There was America-Online and Earthlink, and Most perished in the .com bust, but then a New Republic of Companies actually discovered how to make money. When that happened, companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter flourished and went global. They weren’t welcome everywhere they went, but they were allowed unlimited access in their quadrants of the galaxy. That was until the

Return of the ITU…

[Pan onto a giant triangular ship with the words UN getting ready to blast a smaller ICANN ship into smithereens]

Or, at least that what ITU, who were traditional responsible for telecommunications issues, would love to see happen this week. Russia and China, who will be playing the role of Jar Jar Binks, are stepping forward in an effort to re-write the International Telecommunications Regulations treaties, last negotiated in 1988, when most of the world had never heard of the Internet. They would like ITU to be Emperor of Cyperspace.

Why? Well, even though the Internet was largely a US and British creation, its effects have been global and distorted the existing geopolitical landscape. China, Russia and a large number of other countries would like to be able to exert some control over the Internet, but because ICANN is still US-controlled, what they can do is limited and easily defeated by any 10-year old with any knowledge of how the Internet works.

What would be so bad, specially, about the ITU ascension to the throne? The main concern is the breakup of the Internet, which could cut off huge segments of the global population from the current net. The end results could be a network of loosely connected Intranets, with each country having absolute control over their piece of the pie. That’s bad for advertisers, social networks, and free speech in general.

This is causing many of the companies who have made sacks full of cash to go feces-throwing crazy, because they see the UN in a slightly different light. Companies fear that under the ITU, the Internet and any hopes of further Innovation would be bogged down by that other UN hallmark, overwhelming bureaucracy and in-fighting. ICANN is no model of efficiency, but for sheer inaction and petty squabbles you just can’t beat the United Nations.

So are there any Jedi is this scenario to defend ICANN? Not at many as you would think. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are typical “Rebel Scum” at this point, but as far as Alliances go, they have been pretty formidable.

But for real Jedi, you need to look at the groups and companies that control the domain names. There are currently 22, although that number will grow substantially when a new wave of domain names, including names in Arabic and Chinese, goes into effect next year. The Jedi include companies like SITA (who controls .aero), US Department of Defense (which has .mil), and VeriSign, which has the powerful trilogy of .com, .net, and .org. There are also 248 “country” Jedi, who each control their country’s domain name, such as .ae or .uk.

If the Emperor wants to control the Internet, it will have to kill these Jedi, or at least turn them to the dark side.

Will that happen? Eh, probably not, but things could get intense. No country so far has unplugged from the Internet but there are some disturbing things happening. For example, China has launched a number of websites that offer services very similar to what already exists, such as Sina Weibo, an alternative to Twitter, but in a format that can be easily monitored. That’s right, there’s a Clone War brewing.

Let’s hope the Force is strong with ICANN. They may not be the best at what they do, but at least the Internet, as it is now, works. There is no need to fix something that isn’t broken.