Who controls the Internet? This is a question that has reemerged in recent weeks as the crisis in the Middle East and North Africa has unfolded. Reports of Egypt's shutdown of network operators left many asking whether other nations, including the U.S., could flip a "kill switch" and bring down the Internet in their respective nations. (For the record, the U.S. government could not easily do so.) Egypt is not the first country to deny service to the Internet for its citizens -- Iran and China, for example, both have blocked traffic, content, and services. Indeed, North Korea has blocked all Internet access to its citizens.
Underpinning the question of control is a belief by many that the Internet is a global commons analogous to land, sea, air, and space -- those resources for which the international community has, out of necessity, established norms and institutions to allow for (generally) peaceful coexistence. The analogy, however, is not perfect. The Internet doesn't resemble the four commons much at all.
On one level, one can argue that the Internet is a telecommunications network of telecommunications networks, and, with few exceptions, each network is physically located within or among state boundaries and explicitly owned by someone -- not typically a government. At a fundamental level, the Internet is just an agreement between networks to exchange data in a certain standardized way, and each of the networks and the computers they interconnect is subject to some legal authority based on location or ownership.
A nation can close land borders, block seaports, and restrict air space (to a certain degree), but it cannot, short of shutting down almost all of its Internet communications networks or providing strict monitoring and filtering (a la China), "take down" the Internet. By their nature, networks do not end at borders and the underlying content and communications cross nations and regions, providing a new fifth global common.
We are seeing this fight over the fifth global common extending beyond nations' internal network into a debate over who controls the complex interconnected network of unique identifiers that allow computers on the Internet to find each other.
The Washington Post reported this week that the Obama Administration has raised concerns that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' (ICANN) is not giving more nations authority to voice objections to web addresses that make up the addressing system for the Internet. ICANN, under a contract from the U.S. government, runs global domain name system operations and is authorized to enter into contracts with registries and registrars for the distribution of addresses, manage IP address space assignments, and govern top-level domain names. The U.S., through the Commerce Department, pushed for ICANN to allow nations to veto domain names that they found offensive; ICANN's board responded by deciding that it would only consider such objections as non-binding advice.
While it may seem odd for the U.S. to be asking for other nations to have more authority, its request is one to preempt a push by nations such as China and Russia to move authority over domain name server operations from the ICANN-U.S. government regime to the United Nations. Other nations fear that the U.S. might, if it chose to discontinue its contract with ICANN, seek to run the operations itself, thereby potentially controlling a key part of the Internet's operations and dictating this fifth common beyond its border. Such a possibility is unlikely, especially as there are safeguards and steps in place to protect against undue influence.
Those concerns demonstrate the tension for this potential global common. The struggle to tackle the rules of the road on this common will only become harder as technology advances, telephone and Web services continue to converge, and cloud computing and social networking become more common. Unfortunately, even if a solution does arise, it must be a malleable one, as the Internet by its very nature (and unlike land, sea, air, and space) is constantly evolving.