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Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace

Author: Milton L. Mueller
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002
Review Published: July 2008

 REVIEW 1: Pramod K. Nayar

Is the Internet the free space as some make it out to be? Or is it a regulated territory, subject to rules of access and navigation as any other?

Milton L. Mueller's book, Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace, explores the linked myths of "self-governance" of the Internet and "free" cyberspace. Moving from economic policy and property rights to the technological issues involved, Mueller's book is a comprehensive account of the multi-level attempts to govern cyberspace.

The creation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- which Mueller designates a "constitutional moment" -- was the earliest move in a collective action regarding the governance of cyberspace. At the "root" of the moment was a perceived crisis in allocation of IP addresses and domain names system (DNS). The aim, Mueller notes, was not governance so much as the conflict over domain names, and yet that is what ICANN represents now.

In his early chapters, Mueller explores the technical substrate of the root and domain system. Mueller studies the "core" of the governance problem: the root. From here, he moves on to Internet name and address spaces and the early attempts to regulate them. Mueller traces this to the institutional changes in governing domain names and root servers.

In the section "The Story of the Root," Mueller maps the origin of the root as a core concept and structure in Internet protocol. In 1978 it was proposed that the protocol could be split into Internet Protocol (IP) and Transport Control Protocol (TCP). In 1984 six top level domains (.arpa, .ddn, .gov, .cor, .edu, and .pub) were initiated. The first three country code delegations were made in 1985, with about ten being added every year after this (by 1993 there were 107 country code delegations). By 1990 the DNS was proving to be the most popular "addressing syntax" for different networks to exchange email. And by 1991, Mueller notes, it was certain that data communication had begun to converge globally on TCP/IP and Internet-style domain names.

The Internet became, therefore, the common space where networking initiatives met, and made assignment of values and addresses crucial. Mueller discusses the assignment of values to addresses and the complex negotiations between the technical, economic, and policy "layers." The task of an organization is to see that the assignments remained exclusive, the resource used efficiently, and disputes between assignments resolved. Mueller discovers that the contents of the root zone file rely mostly on market processes and collective action. Stakeholder groups began to increasingly face conflicts in these areas, and moved to take action. This was what Mueller sees as the "institutionalization" of the resource spaces of the Internet.

The growth of the Internet and its massive (and speedy) commercialization created a new resource -- the domain name space. It suddenly dawned on institutions that whoever controlled the root zone file would be able to authorize domain registries. This lead to the policy of charging for domain names (instituted by the National Science Foundation and its contractor Network Solutions).

As commercialization turned domain name space into a common pool resource, there were more conflicts over domain names. The application of trademark laws to solve such conflicts, Mueller notes, created more problems in turn.

ICANN seeks to govern the global shared resource which is the Internet, and functions as a "resource-based international regulatory regime" (220). It is not, Mueller emphasizes, a "privatization" (as the US Department of Commerce claims). ICANN defines and enforces property rights in names, regulates the Domain Name supply industry, and facilitates surveillance and control of Internet users by law enforcement agencies. The efficacy of ICANN, Mueller argues, will depend on the global membership and the will to collective action.

The creation of "artificial scarcity" at the top level of the name space indicates, for Mueller, the problems involved in institutionalization. Mueller notes four stages in this institutionalization: the availability of only one global commercial top-level domain gave second-level names under .com a special value as an economic resource; with common pool conditions, the special value stimulated speculative, defensive, and fraudulent registration; this in turn provoked those with existing rights in names to lobby against further expansion of name space; and the failure to expand name space enhanced the value and power of names in .com. Mueller argues that the real reason for not invoking property rights in top-level domains is political not legal: if registry property owners had property rights in top-level domains, the name-owners would have stronger legal rights, and the governments would have to pass legislation and follow formal regulatory procedures to monitor them.

Mueller sees organizations like ICANN as signaling the end of the Internet's "role as a site of radical business and technology innovation," and as a "revolutionary force that disrupts existing social and regulatory regimes" (267). Mueller does not see much scope for radical change in this scenario. Unlike Alexander Galloway, in Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, who gives a lot of importance to the role of "tactical media," Mueller characterizes the governance problem as more or less withstanding such assaults.

After Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Mueller's is by far the most thorough explication of the problems involved in Internet governance. The turn to property rights and trademark as solution, Mueller correctly assesses, does not really solve the problem. Neither does semi-formal, institutional, or even state-level modes of governance. What makes Ruling the Root an important work (if occasionally, but only occasionally, a mildly dull read!) is Mueller's detailed unraveling of the technical, political economic, and policy aspects of Internet governance. He gives the lie to "easy" hagiographies of the Net where figures like Howard Rheingold (and, to a lesser extent, Mark Poster) see cyberspace as a "free" zone. Mueller is careful to see the "problem" of Internet governance as one that meshes, messily, all these aspects.

Ruling the Root is likely to be a significant intervention in the politically and socially informed debates about the very nature of cyberspace.

Pramod K. Nayar:
Pramod K. Nayar teaches in the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad, India. His most recent books are Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis, Politics and Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology. Pramod has reviewed for Biomedia, Cyberculture, and Literature and the Internet: A Guide for Students, Teachers, and Scholars for RCCS.  <nayarpramod@hotmail.com>

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