INS employee: Net privatization is a risky venture

INS employee: Net privatization is a risky venture

Public accountability makes the government the best purveyor of cyberpolicies, this fed says

By J. Michael Brower

Special to GCN

You might not be interested in the privatization of the Internet'but Internet privatizers are interested in you. Even now, Internet privateers are watching you, the potentially lucrative market of Web surfers.

Internet privatization would remove the government's benign administrative role over the Web and bring us into the brave new world of voodoo Internet economics'an online world of cybersquatting, cyberpiracy, cyberabuse, infotainment and profit-over-pedagogy.

Through the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Clinton administration proposed in a June 1997 policy paper that a nonprofit corporation should manage domains. A newly created entity, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, won out over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, a government contractor in Marina del Rey, Calif.

Ruling the domain

ICANN will control the work formerly done exclusively through a government contract held by Network Solutions Inc. of Herndon, Va. ICANN now oversees open competition for domain names with .com, .net and .org identifiers and is exploring possible new domains such as .firm.

This is not to say that NSI was the perfect arrangement, particularly given that the company recently came under a Justice Department antitrust investigation after it allegedly routed traffic to its own Web site from InterNIC, the National Science Foundation's domain name register.

But if domain distribution becomes privatized, commercial interests ultimately could increase costs to users, creating even more cyberchaos than there is now and possibly throwing a wrench into organizations' efforts toward electronic commerce.

The Internet got started in the late 1960s as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project. Now the government is giving it away.

Ironically, Internet privatization will likely cause consumers to eventually demand reintroduction of federal oversight.

The computing and online-service community cannot self-regulate consumer protection, nor can it respond with one voice to e-commerce, trademarks, international property rights, taxation, encryption and similar challenges.

Only government can insert a public role into these otherwise money-dominated discussions. And only government can deal with cybersquatters'those people or organizations registering trademark-violating domain names in expectation of selling them back to their namesakes or simply as a land grab in the classic buy-low, sell-high style.

Clearly, the only reliable guarantor of the Internet as a free communications media'not simply another opportunist commercial vehicle'is the government in its limited, publicly accountable oversight role.

The possibility of an Internet oligopoly may seem remote today, but consider the signs. Just as private enterprises can be bought or sold, so too, it now seems, can the Made in the U.S.A. label that the Internet tenuously retains.

In July, ICANN approved companies in Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Israel and Kuwait to compete as registrars for Internet domains. America's most important telecommunications breakthrough of the century is essentially being handed over to the marketplace.

The expectation that competition will reduce consumer costs will prove illusory
in the long run if the U.S. public finds that accountability has moved overseas or, literally, into the ether.

The very raison d''tre of the Internet is the universal and virtually cost-free exchange of information. Without public oversight, for-profit motivations, in the guise of nonprofit companies, will impinge on consumer privacy and pocketbooks.

Maintaining the root server system that maps the domains to Internet protocol addresses should stay within the grasp of the same Americans whose taxes originally underwrote the Internet.

''J. Michael Brower is a program specialist for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Burlington, Vt. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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