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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Friday, October 28, 2005

Goodlatte says U.S. should control Internet; A1

Congressman co-sponsors bill against U.N. group’s proposal regarding Web

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

A United Nations group wants an international body — not the U.S. government — to control a key function of the Internet.

But one local congressman thinks that’s a bad idea, and wants Congress to go on record as saying so.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, is one of three co-sponsors of a resolution stating that the United States, not the United Nations, should retain authority over the nuts and bolts of the network.

Goodlatte’s resolution is in response to documents produced by the Working Group on Internet Governance, a U.N. body studying the future of Internet.

In a report prepared for the World Summit on the Information Society in November, the group opined that an international body, not the United States, should be vested with control of so-called “top-level domains” and “root servers.”

Why does it matter? It helps to start with some history.

The Internet began in the late 1960s as a computer communications project backed by the Department of Defense.

ARPANET, as it was called, was made up of four computers at four western universities linked together via data-packet switching technology, the method of information transfer that makes modern electronic communication possible.

Over the course of the 1980s the National Science Foundation took over, and more universities and other groups were connected. Faster and faster links were laid across the country, and the private sector got into the act.

After the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Commerce took over administration of “top-level domains,” such as “.com,” “.org” and “.net,” as well as the root servers — the “master phone book” of the Internet that tells other servers where to look when a user types in an address made up of letters instead of a numeric Internet protocol address.

In 1998, the Commerce Department handed that function over to the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers in California, which has since signed agreements with private sector companies to manage some domains like “.com.”

Since then ICANN has been responsible for what comes after the last “dot” in addresses, including which domains are given to which countries — “.uk” for the United Kingdom, “.ca” for Canada, “.cn” for China.

Those domains give each country its own set of “.com” and other common domain addresses to use. For example: www.people.com takes a user to People Magazine, while www.people.com.cn takes users to “The People’s Daily,” the official newspaper of the Chinese government.

But Commerce retains veto power over ICANN, and that doesn’t sit well with a number of countries around the world, not just traditional U.S. adversaries such as Iran and Cuba.

Some 95 percent of all income tax returns in Brazil are filed over the Internet. That nation’s federal and state governments use the Internet for purchasing and other critical operations.

The European Union recently sided with a group of other nations at a U.N. conference, endorsing a shift of control from the United States to an international body of some kind.

The Bush administration has said flat-out that such an outcome is unacceptable, and Goodlatte’s resolution intends to back up that stand.

“The EU should realize that the United States protects the Internet through freedom,” Goodlatte said recently, speaking to EU officials.

“The U.S. is uniquely positioned in the world to protect the fundamental principles of free press and free speech, upon which the Internet has thrived,” added the congressman, whose district stretches from Shenandoah County to Roanoke.

ICANN is sufficiently international, according to the resolution introduced to the House of Representatives last week.

Giving governments like Iran and Cuba a say in how the Internet works puts free speech at risk for everyone, Goodlatte said.

“The U.S. Constitution guarantees these basic rights, and to turn more control of the Internet over to countries that have questionable records at best regarding these rights would not ensure the Internet’s continued success,” he said.

Why does it matter who runs the root servers? Think of it in terms of area codes and telephones.

If Virginia decided it wanted to use the “212” area code and New York didn’t agree, calls to a “212” number might ring a phone in Manhattan, or might ring a phone in Richmond. It might be impossible to call New York from a phone in Virginia.

Then again, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal for people who didn’t call outside the commonwealth.

That’s a good analogy for the current dispute, according to Jonathan Spencer, general counsel for Shentel, the Edinburg-based telecommunications company. Spencer was a vice president with the British firm Cable and Wireless before coming to the Shenandoah Valley.

“Whether this will ultimately be an issue for business, I kind of doubt it,” Spencer said. “I think its more of a global political issue.”

It is theoretically possible that the dispute could wind up creating two Internets — one in which the root servers answer to ICANN, another taking orders from an new international body, he said.

Such a bifurcation could make it more difficult or expensive for international transactions because someone would have to come up with a technology that would make the systems work together again.

“That would ultimately increase costs for business,” Spencer said. It could also slow down innovation, as things like telephone and television slowly shift from traditional technology.

A number of providers already offer home phone service via the Net.

The World Summit on the Information Society is scheduled for early November in Tunisia.