Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Weakly Standard: Persistently Wrong About EVERYTHING

Today, they trotted out some Ph.D. student to spin a noxious stream of neo-conservative bullshit about— get this— Internet governance. As it happens, I have some professional expertise in Internet engineering, operations and management, with a minor in Internet governance, so the Stupid in question here isn't as easily overlooked with a sigh and a "well, I'll let the experts take this article apart" dismissal. No, this one falls to me.

I shall now commence to vigorously taking the article down.

Who Controls the Internet?
The United States, for now, and a good thing, too.
by Ariel Rabkin
05/25/2009, Volume 014, Issue 34

The headline and the subhead, as always, is even worse than the article. In this case, however, I blame the author and not the editor. If the author had even the faintest clue what he was talking about, then the editor wouldn't have been tempted to extrapolate the [poorly formed] main argument of the article, i.e. that ICANN should remain under contract to the U.S. Department of Commerce, into the stratospheric heights of inanity it's reached here.

Let's start by taking apart the very first sentence of Mr. Rabkin's article:

In order to please our European allies and our Third World critics, the Obama administration may be tempted to surrender one particular manifestation of American "dominance": central management of key aspects of the Internet by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

He's talking about the ongoing tussle over control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). It's not a new fight. It's been going on since before there ever was an ICANN. (The Wikipedia article about ICANN is pretty good.)

It takes a particularly bent kind of personality to look at the tiny management function of ICANN and its dependence on a revenue stream from the U.S. Department of Commerce that's so small that I defy you to even find it in the Commerce budget, and to describe that as American "dominance" of anything. These personalities seem to be drawn to the Weakly Standard like mosquitos to an Alabama campfire.

... Other countries are pushing for more control. Early this year, British cabinet member Andy Burnham told the Daily Telegraph that he was "planning to negotiate with Barack Obama's incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites." It would be a mistake for the administration to go along. America's special role in managing the Internet is good for America and good for the world.

Despite Mr. Rabkin's assertions, the United States does not have any special role in "managing" the Internet, and it gets nothing good or bad out of paying for ICANN out of the Commerce budget, except maybe the blame for some of ICANN's less than popular decisions.

But wait... Mr. Rabkin is only just getting started making a fool of himself.

Internet domain names (such as are managed hierarchically. At the top of the hierarchy is an entity called IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, operated on behalf of the Commerce Department. The U.S. government therefore has the ultimate authority to review or revoke any decision, or even to transfer control of IANA to a different operator.

p1. Internet domain name authority is federated, which is not quite the same thing as "managed hierarchically," and I would have expected an editor at The Weakly Standard to know the difference. Or, I would have expected that if I didn't already have an extremely low opinion of the editors at The Weakly Standard.

p2. The entity that manages the name authority for the root DNS zone is technically not IANA, which is only one of ICANN's subcommittee operations and not authoritative about anything related to operations or management of the Internet domain name system. Mr. Rabkin's conflates the two organizations, referring to ICANN as IANA, throughout his article. This is the error that proves to me that he doesn't have the faintest clue what he's talking about.

p3. Worse, the ICANN isn't even charged with operating the DNS root zone zervers. That job is currently farmed out of the U.S. Department of Commerce to a multinational corporation called VeriSign, the less you know about, the more calmified you will feel. They pay even less attention to what Barack Obama or the members of the U.S. Senate might think than you do. And YOU couldn't care less, could you?

p4. Finally, the U.S. government doesn't have any authority to review or revoke ICANN decisions. What it has is basically the same authority it has over any chartered corporation that depends on the U.S. government for its funding. The U.S. government, if sufficiently moved, can protest an ICANN decision by unilaterally revoking its charter and attempting to seize back direct control of the naming authority by force. Good luck with that, I say.

Moving on.

Until now, the management of the Domain Name System has been largely apolitical, and most of the disputes that have arisen have been of interest only to insiders and the technology industry.

Like this one, for instance? (Link goes to a technical side of the ongoing clusterfark over internationalized domain names, in which ICANN sits in the middle.)

IANA has concerned itself with fairly narrow questions like "Should we allow names ending in .info?" Commercial questions about ownership of names, like other property disputes, are settled in national courts. Political questions like "Who is the rightful government of Pakistan, and therefore the rightful owner of the .pk domain?" are settled by the U.S. Department of State.

There are persistent proposals to break the connection between IANA and the U.S. government. In these schemes, IANA would be directed by some international body, such as the United Nations or the International Telecommunication Union, which coordinates international phone networks. It is unclear what problem such proposals attempt to solve. There have been no serious complaints about American stewardship of the Internet, no actual abuses perpetrated by American overseers. But were we to abdicate this stewardship, a number of difficulties could arise.

Again. He means ICANN, not IANA. He also probably doesn't mean Verisign, either, but that's not exactly clear. There have been complaints about Verisign. Lots and lots.

I don't know about you, but I can't wait to get into the list of "difficulties" that he thinks could arise.

Perhaps most serious, control of Internet names could become a lever to impose restrictions on Internet content.

What? No, seriously... WTF?

Many governments already attempt to control speech on the Internet. Some years ago, Yahoo! was subject to criminal proceedings in France for allowing Nazi memorabilia to be auctioned on its website. Britain, Canada, and Australia all have mandatory nationwide blacklists of banned sites, managed by nongovernmental regulators with minimal political oversight. Such blacklists can have unpredictable consequences: Wikipedia was badly degraded to British users for some hours because of a poorly designed censorship system targeting child pornography.

Mr. Rabkin seems to have completely forgotten that the Domain Name System (DNS) has a federated naming authority, which he described as "managed hierarchically" in his opening sentence, and that ICANN only controls the top-level domain names. I can't begin to comprehend how he's taken that and gone off into the weeds here.

If we give control of the Internet naming infrastructure to an international organization, we must expect attempts to censor the Internet. The Organization of the Islamic Conference will doubtless demand the suppression of websites that "insult Islam" or "encourage hatred," and a number of European countries may well go along.


It doesn't matter who pays for either ICANN or the root zone operator. We must expect attempts to censor the Internet. In fact, we should probably not be terribly surprised to notice that billions of people are already subject to censorship on the Internet, despite Mr. Rabkin's lauding of American "dominance" over Internet governance. How did that happen, Mr. Wizard?

It gets better.

Most countries lack our First Amendment tradition, and if we wish to protect the free speech rights of Americans online, we should not allow Internet domain names to be hostage to foreign standards. Many other First World countries already have government-imposed restrictions on Internet speech that we would not contemplate here. Even if Internet governance were shared only with First World democracies, they might urge and ultimately demand that domain operators impose restrictions on content.

Oh, ye gods. He's worried that if ICANN were to be spun loose and run out of the Internet Society or something, then those goddamned wankers in Eurabia will force him to register instead of www.mohammedsuckedmydick or

I so want to be introduced to his dope dealer.

An international Internet-management organization could offer foreign governments a way to impose restrictions without public debate. Rather than having a political fight about the matter, governments might quietly pressure international regulators to draw up and gradually extend "responsible behavior" codes for online speech. This would follow a pattern familiar in other global institutions: Governments negotiate preferred policies without public participation and then present the results as an international consensus, beyond political challenge.

Rabkin is clearly not paying attention. Nobody interested in doing any of those things gives a flying fraggle how the ICANN runs its show, because it's irrelevant to them. How do I know this? Because The Weakly Standard routinely apologizes for every pseudo-Christian wanker in America who'd like very much to scour the pornography out of the Internet with an army of Jesuses wielding wire brushes and tasers, and does the Weakly Standard even know the difference between ICANN and IANA? No. Not important to them. Irrelevant.

American stewardship does not mean the world must put its entire trust in U.S. oversight. If the United States started using its privileged role in ways that other governments found intolerable, they could override this behavior. It would be technically straightforward for foreign governments to maintain their own naming infrastructure and to instruct Internet service providers to use it. This heavy-handed government intervention in network operations, however, would likely receive substantial public scrutiny. It probably would not be undertaken unless the United States gravely misused its authority over the Internet.

He's trying to kill me.

Mr. Rabkin apparently doesn't know or care that the monolithic public Internet domain name horizon is pretty much a polite fiction that bears no actual semblance of reflection on the practices of the real world. Does Mr. Rabkin know why OpenDNS has a reason to exist? Hint: it's because there really isn't a single centralized federated naming authority in practice. Naming authority is routinely overridden in the real world. It's only a single public horizon by convention. (It's not even law, because well, the Internet is run by toothless anarchists and dope-smoking hippies like me, and that's how we roll.)

This same reluctance would apply to potential American responses to censorship or mismanagement by an international organization.

The United States could, in theory, set up a renegade, uncensored Internet. ...

In theory, the United States could unilaterally dismantle its nuclear weapons systems and sell off its eleven carrier battle groups as scrap metal to the Pakistani razor-blade factories.

...But there would likely be significant public distrust, substantial political acrimony, and a great deal of hesitation. We are better off keeping the public Internet free and leaving the social and technical burdens on governments that want to censor. The present system is thus perhaps the best way to prevent the naming system from being used to chill online speech worldwide.

How, exactly does it do that, Mr. Rabkin? How exactly would "surrendering" it to the Internet Society, where the function originated in the first place, facilitate your supposed "chill" of online free speech? I'm trying to figure out how that would work, and I'm just not seeing it.

American supervision of Internet naming is not a historical accident.Much of the world's telecommunications infrastructure was developed by national post offices. Our unusual tradition of private infrastructure development, including the railroad and telephone networks, made America fertile ground for the development of the Internet. We expect government not only to settle political questions, but also to protect the freedom of private entrepreneurs as much as possible. To the extent that the Internet is decentralized and self-governing, it is so because Americans expect society to work that way.


It is natural for other countries to resent the privileged role of the United States in Internet governance and to demand a greater measure of control. [emphasis mine —s9] But if we believe in free speech, we ought to keep control of the Internet away from foreign governments that value it far less than we do.

Deep inside the mind of anyone who could write a sentence like that and get the basic facts underlying their argument so badly wrong, I have to imagine there is a tiny little fascist beavering away at a tiny little typewriter writing his next populist manifesto.

Shorter Ariel Rabkin: the dirty wogs are coming to kill us all in our beds... and make us learn how to type ϕβκ.com into our browser windows. God help us if Barack Hussein Obama sin Laden Malcolm X cuts loose the ICANN from the Commerce Department, because the next thing you hear will be truncheons and jackboots on the street outside your house. WOLVERINES!!!!1!

Shorter S9: the only privilege the U.S. government enjoys in governing the Internet anymore is to write a check every year to Verisign and ICANN; Verisign doesn't even notice the money, and ICANN hardly needs any. This is not a privilege worth defending, much less paying cold hard cash to retain.

In summary: Ariel Rabkin is a dumb-ass, despite being a Ph.D. candidate in computer science with a friend on the editorial board at The Weakly Standard.

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