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Internet Governance in Transition: Who is the Master of This Domain?

Author: Daniel Paré
Publisher: Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2003
Review Published: November 2003

 REVIEW 1: John W. Campbell
 REVIEW 2: Arthur L. Morin

Many computer users have no doubt wondered who really is in charge of the Internet. In his book Internet Governance in Transition, Daniel Paré, a research fellow in Media@LSE at the London School of Economics and Political Science, examines the complexities and issues involved in Internet governance. This is an intricate, detailed book and Paré clearly has command of his subject. His book seems primarily aimed at researchers by proposing an objective basis for understanding much of the contemporary theorizing about the Internet and its governance. The central issue Paré focuses on is Internet addressing and the controversies that have arisen at international, national, and local levels as Internet use has dramatically increased. Paré's approach to understanding the nature of regulation in the electronic domain stresses a critical understanding of the interaction of power and politics as they influence the organizations that manage the Internet. These groups and how they grow and develop in governing the Internet are central to the battles for control in cyberspace. Over the course of the book, Paré takes us from the early history of informal Internet governance and its success to the increasingly commercialized period of the Internet and its ensuing conflicts.

At the beginning of the book, Paré lays a foundation for understanding the technical features of Internet addressing. As many computer users understand, in order for a computer to be connected to the multitude of networks that comprise the Internet, it needs a unique numeric identifier known as an Internet Protocol (IP) address. These numbers are primarily of interest to network administrators and of limited use to average network users, partly because of the difficulty in remembering them. As Paré points out, the reliance on these numeric sequences makes deducing which addresses apply to whom very difficult. This problem is resolved by the mapping of character strings, or domain names, to IP addresses. At the time of the writing of the book, Paré identifies five generic top-level domains in use: .com, .gov, .net, .edu, and .int. Of these, .com has become the most popular.

Paré defines the Internet as "comprised of the hardware and software that make internetworking possible and of the formal and informal organizational structures that are evolving around this technological configuration" (36). According to the author, prior to 1995, it was the "traditional technologically oriented values and norms" that influenced the development of Internet addressing (36). For example, the domain name system was coordinated on the basis of informal administrative arrangements. As pointed out by Paré, for about 20 years Internet addressing followed a very informal structure. It operated under the formal auspices of an organization called IANA (Internet Numbers Assigning Authority), but was really just one man, Jon Postel, a researcher at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute. Amazingly enough, while some may have thought that the IANA was some huge bureaucracy, people were in fact contacting Postel personally for their Internet addressing numbers. What they were getting on the phone was "a guy with long hair and a beard and sandals who lives overlooking Marina Del Rey" and he answers the phone and says "Well, you want some numbers, yeah" (18). According to Paré, Postel's stewardship of Internet addressing had no legal basis but was simply a product of Postel's status within the technical elites of the international networking community.

Such an informal administration obviously would not last, not withstanding the death of Postel in 1998. A key variable that ended such informality and sparked the "domain name wars" was the rapid growth of computer internetworking throughout the 1990s. In data provided by the author, between January 1991 and January 1995 the number of computers connected to the Internet increased about 1,600 percent from 376,000 to 5,846,000 (20). And by July of 1999, the number of computers connected to the Internet exceeded 56 million with the number believed to having gone past 100 million by early 2001 (20). This explosive growth in computer internetworking was followed by a growing demand for domain names which created scarcity problems and conflicts among those responsible for coordinating the domain name system. One major problem was a rise of litigation pitting the rights of trademark holders against those of domain name holders who had registered names first. Thus began what Paré calls "The Domain Name Wars." As the commercial world embraced the Internet, businesses were finding their trademarks in other people's Web sites. Trademark law historically protects the public from deception and confusion by not allowing two similar competing trademarks. But no such legal protect exists in the world of Internet domain names. While Paré doesn't cover these legal problems specifically, it is the term "cybersquatting" which describes the practice of acquiring a Web site address containing a valuable trademark for no commercial purpose but to receive payment from the trademark owner. To prevent these clashes from occurring, some Internet stakeholders obviously wanted to establish more formalistic regular structures than had existed under Postel and the IANA.

Paré criticizes the bulk of Internet governance literature for its failure to address the political dimension of the process by which change is occurring in Internet governance. This political dimension, he says, has led to certain interests overly influencing the administrative structures that now govern the Internet. Instead of perhaps more equitable governmental structures which include all parties involved in Internet administration, politics and power are taking control of the structures for managing domain name registrations and allocations. In what appears to be the primary objective of the book, Paré says there is a need for researchers to interpret the dynamics of internet politics with a power-oriented approach. Since the Internet is made of stakeholders such as commercial interests, Internet and non-Internet organizations, consumers, and government authorities, "the need for examining the role of politics and power arises" (64).

From this perspective, Paré examines two institutions of Internet governance closely in the book, ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and Nominet UK. ICANN is essentially the organization that succeeded the IANA in 1998. ICANN is offically the technical coordination body for the Internet created by, in theory, a broad coalition of the Internet's business, technical, academic, and user communities. It is a non-profit, private-sector corporation with a goal of preserving the operational stability of the Internet for global Internet communities. Nominet UK is the registry for, and manages the database of, .uk Internet. It is also a non-profit corporation and has members instead of shareholders.

Paré spends two of the seven chapters in the book examining the transformation of the .uk Domain Naming Regime and Internet Addressing from a UK perspective. The emergence of Nominet UK was shaped over time "by both the characteristics of the naming architecture and the dynamic processes of cooperation and competition between social actors" (95). According to the author, most UK-based registrars favored a more highly coordinated approach to the administration of the domain name system that was in place prior to the formation of ICANN. They also favored a reduction in the degree of American influence over domain naming policy. An apparent problem with Nominet UK is that it developed without much participation of domain name registrants with the result that some parties with more reputational power became more influential in establishing domain naming policy. But in the case of Nominet, Paré says that despite the struggles, the organization was able to develop inclusive strategies for change, with a minimization of its authority, and a continued neutrality in making policies.

In the case of ICANN, however, Paré says the organization's attempts to legitimize its role as being responsible for overseeing the technical administration of the Internet "have remained precarious" (36). According to the author, the problems have to do with the international context of ICANN's role as well the far greater number of stakeholders involved. Paré says it is the conflicts between competing interests struggling for power that has apparently bogged down ICANN with issues that are regulatory rather than technical. Unlike the Nominet, Paré notes that ICANN has used noninclusive strategies that restricted public input and lacked accountability, a major problem with a private organization exerting global public authority over an international global information and communication resource. He says, to no surprise to the many critics of ICANN, that operationally the organization runs "counter to the much lauded norms of openness, grassroots coordination, and representativeness" (169). In examining both Nominet UK and ICAAN, Paré concludes that it is clear that "power relations help to shape the parameters of these emergent administrative innovations and the social orders they have perpetuated" (164).

As Paré makes clear, the ambiguities of the informal methods gave rise to numerous political, economic and legal controversies. The author concludes that at the core, these conflicts are a reflection of "different actors perceptions both of the goals of this information and communication resource and how these goals might best be achieved" (169).

Paré believes the power-oriented framework he introduces, most useful for theorists and academic researchers, will help in understanding how Internet regulatory and coordinating bodies are developed, which will enable more precise hypothesizing about their behavior and influence on the trajectory of Internet government. He believes his power-oriented framework will lessen the likelihood that analyses of emerging Internet governance will be influenced with ideologically motivated positions of the appropriate roles of the state or the private sector in managing the Internet.

Paré's emphasis on an understanding and an analysis of power relations recognizes an underlying belief that the Internet governance is best served by recognizing the interests of all Internet stakeholders, not just those with the most power and influence. As researchers and theorists understand this complex process, Paré's goal is one of an Internet governance with equity for all of those involved in effective administration and management. As he suggests, this perhaps can be done by an understanding of power relations as it impacts Internet politics with the resulting effect of minimizing their negative influences.

It may come as no surprise that power and politics have entered the previously technologically dominated world of the Internet. Paré's book helps us examine how we can understand this process with resulting input and research that hopefully will result in a newly enlightened Internet governance that treats all stakeholders fairly and equitable. Paré asks the ultimate question in the subtitle of his book, "Who Is the Master of this Domain?" The answer appears to be one whose outcome is still to be determined but that it is an excellent idea to understand the forces at work in determining the eventual answer.

John W. Campbell:
John W. Campbell is an assistant professor of Communication at Eastern New Mexico University where he teaches Computer-Assisted Reporting and a variety of electronic media classes. He has a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from Ohio University.  <John.Campbell@enmu.edu>

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