[AfrICANN-discuss] Who's in charge here?

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Fri Mar 20 21:14:41 SAST 2009

Who's in charge here?


There isn’t really anyone in charge of the internet and no one runs it in a
conventional sense

ASKING “WHO runs the internet” reminds me of a postcard I once bought that
stated: “The world is run by a small, evil group to which, unfortunately,
nobody I know belongs.”

People must often feel the same way about the internet. Just read some of
what journalists – like myself – write about what goes on online, about the
attempts to rein in illegal activity, to stop hackers, to protect children,
to legislate for the net, and the internet can seem a lawless,
out-of-control, even frightening place.

In some ways, the internet – or, rather, parts of it – may be just that but,
then, so is the day-to-day real world.

And, as in the day-to-day world, the internet features all the everyday,
enriching activities – pursuing hobbies with satisfaction, connecting with
friends and relatives, meeting new people with similar interests, finding an
answer to a question, figuring out how to do something, buying stuff you
need, finding that perfect gift, or just wasting time in a contented way –
that don’t get much daily scrutiny or a news story at 6pm.

Still though, people – parents especially perhaps – often feel far more
anxious about such things in cyberspace (but, curiously, often without any
concern about how their own online activities are under watch and how such
records are archived).

Why should this be so? I think the answer is closely tied to the question of
who runs the internet – in other words, who leads, who makes decisions, who
determines what happens, who knows what is going on.

Many people want a top-down answer. They would like to see a kind of
organisational chart that shows, in a diagram, who sits in the top box in
charge of everything, then who is in the next tier of boxes as the
second-in-command, and so forth down to the lowest rungs where, we hope, on
a local level, there might be someone whose job description includes
“answering questions from worried parents”.

The reality of the internet, though, is that there isn’t really anyone in
charge. It’s amazing, isn’t it, when you think about it?

The internet is arguably the singlemost important piece of infrastructure in
the developed world – economically, socially and culturally, it permeates
the lives of most people, whether directly or indirectly – and no one runs
it in a conventional sense.

This is largely due to the way in which the internet evolved – as a small,
then gradually expanding, network of interlinked computers within the US
defence department and some academic sites around the US back in the 1970s
and 1980s. Because of this (and a similar pattern for the world wide web,
which grew out of the Cern research facility in Switzerland, now better
known for the Large Hadron Collider that was switched on last year amid
concerns it would create a black hole), what became essential to running the
internet was not a department or organisation or even country (although the
US had, and to some degree still has, enormous say).

Instead, the technical specifications that enable computer to connect to
computer, device to device, device and computer to telecommunications
networks and so forth are critical.

So the internet’s only real global “leaders” are a set of three technical
governing bodies: the Internet Society; the Internet Corporation for
Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann); and the W3 (world wide web) Consortium.
These three bodies set – or often, mainly encourage – specifications that
nobody can be forced to follow.

But people, whether they are in charge of the huge telecommunications
networks around the globe or of a university or corporate computer network,
do tend to set up their equipment according to standards agreed upon by such
bodies. They can also contribute to these standards at events such as
International Engineering Task Force meetings.

One such meeting was held here last summer and was one of the most
democratic forms of near-chaos I’ve witnessed (see http://tinyurl.com/c7ajvr

The reason why people running networks will mostly follow the specifications
is not because they come to polite agreement, but because each knows that if
they do not eventually embrace the standards, their systems won’t be able to
talk to the internet very efficiently, or perhaps at all.

So it is a functional and generally benign carrot-and-stick approach.

The stick is us, the general public. The folks running the networks feel
enormous pressure from users to get it right, as these users consider the
internet to be an indispensable part of their lives.

How indispensable? Well, a study late last year from the Pew Research Centre
in the US found that 46 per cent of women and 30 per cent of men would
rather give up sex for two weeks than be deprived of internet access for the
same period. And yes, those figures suggest that, while women may not care
too much about the internet’s hidden specifications, they do have a few
gripes about those of the opposite sex.

Maybe you don’t feel that anxious about getting online each day. But it is
nice to know that, collectively, we exert enough force to get all those
networks and organisations across the globe to comply with the
specifications that keep this amazing network of networks running for us

klillington at irishtimes.com

Blog and podcasts: www.techno-culture.com

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times
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