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Sometimes events in international relations are funny when they do not mean to be--and such moments usually underscore something serious. In December, authorities in Kazakhstan pulled down the website of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, best known to audiences as Ali G. One of Cohen's personas is Borat, a bushy-mustached Kazakh journalist who deadpans outlandish statements in broken English: he congratulated Madonna at the MTV Europe Music Awards for being such a convincing transvestite; he boasted that his faux homeland is so modern that "women can now travel on inside of bus." The recurrent joke, of course, is about the inherent prejudices of all of us who laugh. To add a touch of realism, a Web site, www.borat.kz, was registered under Kazakhstan's two-letter national domain. But the Kazakh government found the material disparaging, and--after murky government orders; no one publicly says how--the address was deleted and the site disappeared from cyberspace. (It has since been resurrected, at www.borat.tv.)
The Kazakh government's reaction was itself humorous. But the underlying issue is not. It reveals the degree to which the management of the Internet's domain name system--the names, numeric addresses, and technologies that make the network work--is entwined with freedom of expression. The same control that exists over a comedy site applies to one about political rights. As the Web takes on a more important role in society, the ability to be an author, publisher, and consumer of information via email, Web sites, blogs, and instant-messaging (as well as technologies not yet invented) is critical.
Internet addresses are often taken for granted, considered the asphalt of the information highway. But a better metaphor is that they are the real estate of cyberspace. As I noted in the November/December 2005 Foreign Affairs article "Who Will Control the Internet?" this makes the Internet's domain name systems a vital resource of the digital age. Yet because of an historical accident, a California-based nonprofit organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), oversees the administration of generic suffixes (such as .com or .info), decides who administers national domains (such as .kz for Kazakhstan), and even mints new domains (such as the proposed .xxx for adult materials). Dry stuff, but such geeky functions keep the Internet humming.
Should such important functions be in the hands of a private-sector body? Many countries believe they should not; that public policy matters require governments at the helm. And many nations are wary that the U.S. government, which created the Internet, is ICANN's ultimate supervisor. They believe that the Internet, as a global resource, should be managed by the international community rather than by a single country, no matter how well intentioned. Moreover, they contend that because the Internet poses new problems that existing international institutions are not equipped to address, from spam to cyber-security, something new is clearly needed. Unfree regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two most vocal opponents to the United States during the UN World Summit on the Information Society in November, are not the only countries that hold these views: the European Union does too, even though it is quick to distance itself from the bombast of less democratic states.
The United States, however, argues that the Internet's openness on a technical level should be matched by its management on a policy level. Washington believes that all stakeholders, not just governments, should be involved in Internet governance, particularly the business community, which fuels the Internet's hyperactive growth. (This position has potent political implications: for instance, if Borat's site had been a .com, a domain managed by a U.S. firm, no government could have interfered with it without the due process of the U.S. legal system.) Washington's policy is therefore to maintain the current setup and retain its oversight of ICANN. "A new intergovernmental structure would most likely become an obstacle to global Internet access for all our citizens," wrote U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez in a November 7 classified diplomatic cable to the British government (which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union).
But diplomatic pressure and ICANN's own policy stumbles will likely prompt Washington to reassess its support for the organization--and move toward a slightly more intergovernmental approach, with the business community's approval. For instance, at ICANN's public quarterly board of directors meeting in December, the group backed away from approving a .xxx domain (after it had supported it without considering the political fallout). Moreover, the group is seen to be unfairly favoring the company that manages .com addresses, which ICANN was created in part to regulate--an issue that could erupt before antitrust regulators worldwide.
In the midst of such political disarray, the current arrangement is changing, albeit slowly. At the UN summit in November, Washington stood almost alone in trying to maintain the status quo against those who wanted to place the management of the Internet's addressing system on a multilateral footing, possibly under UN control. On the eve of the conference's opening, a compromise was reached for the creation of an Internet Governance Forum to be made up of governments, industry representatives, and civil society groups. Although the forum will have no formal powers, many countries regard it as a mechanism to build momentum for multilateral Internet oversight.
At the same time, technological advances are changing the very nature of the debate. The current domain name system is no longer as sacrosanct as it once was. For instance, many users do not rely on the system to find Web sites anymore; they use search engines instead. Some addresses are entirely outside the ICANN system, such as instant-messaging names and Internet-telephone addresses, like Skype's. And peer-to-peer file-sharing systems for downloading music and programs, such as BitTorrent and Gnutella, do not rely on domain names. Some countries, such as China, are even piloting systems that allow languages other than those based on the Roman alphabet to be used for Internet addresses. Taken together, these developments mean that the primacy of ICANN-sanctioned names may not last forever.
At the same time, however, the importance of Internet addresses will increase. Tomorrow, they may include not just computers but people (through Net-enabled phones), vehicles (through the global positioning system), and objects (through radio-frequency identification tags). In such a world, the public policy concerns over things such as privacy will surely grow, and governments will be called upon to play a greater role.
It all points to the idea that questions over what techies call "Internet governance" resemble issues of governance more broadly. Kazakhstan's repression of free speech and the media within its own borders is bad enough. But a poorly constructed framework for Internet governance could open the door for many countries to extend their control over other aspects of the Internet's infrastructure, which historically they have been unable to do. This could encumber the network with political squabbles and bureaucratic red tape.
As the Internet invades more aspects of everyday life, its addressing system is not just a matter of free expression, but also a matter of freedom of assembly and ultimately, freedom of thought. That is why the deletion of one comedian's Web site and other small skirmishes in cyberspace are as troubling as they are funny.