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Who runs the Internet?
September 2005

The trouble with taking something for granted is that sooner or later someone pops out of the woodwork claiming to own it, and starts throwing his weight around. This happens sometimes to village greens; some chap pops up saying he is Lord of the Manor, and wants the locals to pay some dues to him. Much argument, muddle and legal fees follow.

If we are not careful, the same thing is going to happen to the Internet.

Nobody owns the Internet itself, but the 13 huge computers (called the "root servers") that are critical to its general operation are in California, and are controlled by the US government.

Many have long felt that it is wrong for one nation to have such control over what is fast becoming the single most important means of communication, however safe and benign a pair of hands they may be.

So, in 1998, the US agreed to hand over control by 2006. With this in mind, and with full US approval, the United Nations set up the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) which has just issued their recommendations. It's on, but in short it offers four fairly workable options, each of which would allow the Internet to be controlled by neutral non-governmental organisations. These will be discussed at a WGIG summit in November (, and the governments and other organisations that can be bothered to attend will decide which model they prefer.

The trouble is, none of the alternatives allows the US government to retain overall control - and, guess what, suddenly they are not happy about it.

The US Department of Commerce got wind of these proposals and, just before the WGIG report was published, announced that it now has no intention of giving up control, whatever the rest of us might think. There was some high minded fluff about the US maintaining "its historic role" and dark mutterings about "stability and security" if the US control is lost (

This U-turn is important because the Internet works as well as it does mainly because it is a single network. That means that anyone anywhere in the world looking for will find us. But there is no technical reason why it should not have developed as a chaotic and unworkable muddle of competing networks, each using many of the same website addresses. That is exactly what might happen if the Far East, for example, dislike the thought of being part of a US controlled Internet, and form a splinter group.

The American change of heart has not impressed Europeans either, where the thought of having to apply to the US government, in perpetuity, to make changes to their national networking arrangements has, not surprisingly, gone down like a lead balloon.

They may have been slow off the mark, but more and more governments are realising just how much control of the Internet rests in US hands. It is bound to lead to some fairly high level antler locking in due course.

My own view is that if the US sincerely want to maintain the "stability and security" of the Internet they should allow the WGIG scheme to run its course, and be grateful to have the responsibility removed from their shoulders. It would also show a rare and welcome bit of world agreement over something.

However, my instinct is that the US position is more to do with not relinquishing control of anything to foreigners. I bet that if it were, say, India or China that controlled the Internet we would be seeing a lot of American breast beating about free markets, freedom of speech and the sanctity of democracy. Or am I too cynical?