Internet Self Governance and Governments

An Interview with Vinton G. Cerf

by Claudio Allocchio March 15th 2001

[ collegamento alla versione non ufficiale - ITA ]

Q: Currently, many people read daily about the Internet, its new services and its potential problems (computer crime, pedophyly, illegal actvities...) However it seems that the image of the Internet given to the public by the media does not always correspond to its reality: How would you explain "The Net" and its scope to the public?

As the Internet penetrates more completely into each country, the profile of users begins to mirror the general population and all of its diverse interests. In the end, it is a medium for interaction of all kinds (one to one, one to many and many to many). The media tend to focus on the negative sides because that seems to sell more - people are almost always more interested in threats and disasters than they are in good news. The Internet is capable of supporting virtually all the earlier forms of communication (radio, television, telephone, print media) as well as creating from them an amalgam that would not be possible without the Internet's unique technology. The quality of the Internet's versions of these older media varies a great deal, and the Net will not so much replace them as augment them and provide them with yet another outlet.

Q: and how would you explain it to a "special" set of public, i.e. the politicians and the governments?

Perhaps it is best to think of Internet as a communication medium that is growing more and more global. It serves an estimated 400 million people around the world - a modest fraction of the number of radio listeners, telephone and television users - but the rate of growth is fairly high. The number of users has grown at about 80% per year, compounded annually since 1988. While it cannot sustain that rate, I believe that 3 billion users will be online by 2010. The Internet is a tool, a new medium, that supports all kinds of computer-enabled interaction. The most useful tools appear to be electronic mail, World Wide Web information services and, increasingly, transaction processing (supporting business-to-business and business-to-consumer interactions). Some services allow consumers to interact directly, as in Ebay. Internet is also becoming an important tool for communication between the government and citizens and may also play a role in electronic voting. Already, the Internet is in use to support proxy voting for annual meetings of publicly held companies. Ultimately, the Internet will support telephony, radio, television, unlimited online information and combinations of these, all made easily accessible through speech understanding computers.

Q: Internet Governance is something where of course the governments feel they should somehow play a role. Which role do you think they should play?

Governments can help to set frameworks for electronic commerce; they need to establish international agreements to support dispute resolution, possibly through various forms of arbitration as an alternative to litigation. Governments can cooperate with ICANN and with ccTLD operators to protect Internet users and promote the stability of the Internet. Governments can also help to sponsor research and standards-making efforts aimed at continued evolution of the Internet. Governments may need to work together to cope with privacy and intellectual property protection in a global, digital, networked setting.

Q: and which relationship should exist between the current "bottom-up orientied" Internet Governance bodies (both technical, like IETF, and regulatory, like ICANN and the national equivalent bodies) and the Governments?

I would like to think that most Governments would find it worthwhile to cooperate with and support these grass-roots efforts. The so-called "triangular relationship" among ICANN, the ccTLD operator and the associated Government can act to stabilize all three axes to everyone's benefit, for example.

Q: in some cases we already have some agreements: the Australian case is an example. Should it be "the way to go"?

The Australian and Canadian examples are helpful case studies in cooperation among the various interested constituencies and could act as models for others.

Q: Do you think that ICANN mission is known enough amoung the public and the Governement?

I think it is misunderstood to have far more scope than it does - ICANN is NOT the global governing body of the Internet, except for its very narrow responsibility for managing IP address space allocation and the oversight of the Domain Name System. ICANN is not responsible for abusive practices of Internet companies, nor for fraud or other illegal uses of the Internet. ICANN is not responsible for enforcing laws associated with Internet operation and use; it has no policing power. It does try to facilitate agreements among various key constituents, as befits its concensus building mandate in the technical areas for which it has responsibility.

Q: Recently, a member of the Italian Governement, answering the question "why do you propose to centralise under the government strict control the whole Internet national regulatory bodies, replacing the self regulatory ones?" answered as:

"It already happens like this in every country. Also in the United States: ICANN, for example, a no-profit organization, is subject to full control of the US Government, which dictates very strict rules".

In his view ICANN seems an example of Central Government Control of the Internet. How do you comment this declaration?

This is a serious misunderstanding of the actual situation. The US Department of Commerce has retained only one specific authority - to approve the incorporation of new TLD identifiers into the root database. All other areas have fallen to private sector institutions including ICANN. ICANN is working hard to relieve the US Government of this last burden.

Q: Still, some Government condier the self regulatory current bodies is a very strange light. Again another recent declaration was:

"(the current self regulatory bodies - note the "it" Registry Policy Board) are a body which cannot respond to such important tasks. It is composed by about 300 people which accept each other into the body, like in a students assembly. They do not have the authority to resolve problems in a fast way (note: it has the ICANN and WIPO MAPs in place), and in it there are so many companies (note: the registrars) which register domain names".

Why self regulatory bodies and style seems so "strange" to the Governements?

some governments are not accustomed to placing trust and authority for communications services into the hands of the private sector, but that is precisely what privatization and liberalization are all about.

Q: but at least the self regulatory bodies built the Internet, and still make it work well... is it?

It is working very well considering the phenomenal rate of growth and the expansion of applications that seem to be announced daily.

Q: Many Governements sometimes approach the Internet from a very restricted perspective. For example they see as an enormous problem the "names cybersquatting". Is it really such a big problem? Would you call the number of cases something like "a relevant topic"?

yes because they tend to establish precedents for future cases. Quantity may be less important than the existence of these various cases.

Q: what would you say to a parliament which consider the idea of regulating "the whole net", with a law starting with "Prohibited domain name registration", where the definition of a domain names is:

"domain name" or simply "domain" are the set of letters, numbers, or other symbols, internationally admitted to the domain name system (DNS) which ... identifies the holder of internet access rights;

We always believed that a domain names identifies an address or a resource on the network,... not an "holder os Internet Access Right".

What would you suggest to make the internet concepts known to them?

I would point out that national government has, at most, a kind of jurisdiction over the ccTLD and that this oversight role does not extend to other ccTLDs or general TLDs. Most of us think of domain names, not as property, but as a registration of a public resource. Within a particular ccTLD, there is some latitude for setting policy for allowed registrations.

Q: "Internet is For Everyone": what about if before registering a domain name one should perform an international trademaks, WIPO, well known personal names, etc. full enquire, in order to avoid a 30,000 $ immediate administra- tive fine in case of an "error"?

Because of the somewhat fluid state of debate on who has the rights to register particular names, it is generally a wise idea to determine what interests others may have in any particular names. With few exceptions, the technology of the Internet doesn't especially limit the names that can be registered (leaving aside for a moment the continued efforts to support expansion of the character sets used to make up domain name identifiers beyond a limited form of ASCII). Governments need to be conscious of the fact that limitations in one country may only push the problem outside that country's jurisdiction.

Q: The Internet is, by nature, International. Which effotrs should be done by all the involved parties, governement included, to solve problems at international level?

I think ICANN has established a good beginning with the Government Advisory Committee but for legal frameworks in support of e-commerce, serious treaty efforts seem likely to be necessary.

/s/ Vint Cerf
Chairman, ICANN

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