Reuters

No Joke

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 (

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