Who Rules the Net?

The European Union has joined a chorus of developing countries arguing that the US has too much control over the Internet. The fight directly concerns ICANN, the quasi-private group that oversees the Internet’s domain name system under agreements with the US Department of Commerce. But it’s really about much more than that.

What’s remarkable is that this fight comes as American dominance of actual Internet activity is waning. The US doesn’t dominate the emerging wireless Internet, or the emerging broadband video Internet. They are being shaped largely in Europe and Asia, where broadband and mobile penetration is higher.

And before long, there will be far more Internet users in China than in the US. The US argues (correctly, I think) that keeping Internet governance out of the UN will protect against intrusions such as content regulation. However, US Internet companies such as Yahoo! and Google are already bowing to demands from China and elsewhere to comply with anti-free speech policies that would be abhorrant in the US. While the bureaucrats meet in Geneva, the Internet policy decisions that matter are happening in the real world.

This reinforces the notion, mentioned in the article linked above, that what has caused the Internet governance fight to boil over is anger about America’s foreign policy, especially Iraq. That’s a shame. Yet it’s a reality we must acknowledge.

The Internet is less and less removed from the physical world. Internet politics can’t be seen in isolation from geopolitics. That’s the difficult reality.