Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who came to prominence recently in his role as the court’s special adviser in the Microsoft Corp versus Department of Justice antitrust case, gave an different point of view of the process leading to the likely expansion of the internet’s domain name system, which he described as the most important […]
Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who came to prominence recently in his role as the court’s special adviser in the Microsoft Corp versus Department of Justice antitrust case, gave an different point of view of the process leading to the likely expansion of the internet’s domain name system, which he described as the most important constitutional space since the Louisiana purchase, in 1803. But it’s happening, as everybody desires, beyond the control of the US, or any other country’s government, and that’s what worries Lessig. He was speaking on a panel brought together by the New York New Media Association (NYNMA) in Manhattan Wednesday night entitled The internet and public policy: who’s in control? Lessig says he shares the widespread skepticism over government involvement in the internet – as does the government, reminded senior presidential adviser Ira Magaziner, also on the panel. But, as Lessig says, everybody feels there should be some sort of governance, by whom we are not quite sure, just as long as it isn’t the government. The government white paper calls for a non-profit corporation run by a board of directors with the US government getting out of internet governance by October 1 2000 at the very latest. But, asks Lessig, isn’t the government just such a non-profit corporation? And isn’t the board of directors what Congress is supposed to be? The only difference between the government and the non-profit corporation is the lack of requirement for elections, he says. Lessig may be playing devil’s advocate, but he undoubtedly has a point. Lessig went on, imagine setting highway or telecommunications policy this way? Why not carve up the government into lots of little non-profit corporations? Magaziner stepped in to add a touch of Beltway real politik into Lessig’s academic musings. You don’t have to run a referendum on who should allocate blocks of [IP] numbers…you can’t wait and wait and wait, at some point you need to act. But waiting was exactly what Lessig was advocating, regarding the formation of the non-profit group, which is supposed to representative in some way of all internet stakeholders: regional numbering authorities, internet service providers, domain name registries and registrars and, at some point, users. The government wants some sort of interim corporation in place by September 30 this year, the day Network Solutions Inc’ contract to run the .com, .net and .org registries expires. But Lessig urges caution: let’s wait and see how things develop…we haven’t got a mature set of stakeholders. But many would argue that this process has been going on for at least two years, following the May 1996 publication of a paper by the de facto head of the Internet Assigned Number Authority (IANA), Jon Postel. He called for a DNS Council and the addition of 150 new generic top-level domains. The other problem with waiting, is that it would maintain NSI’s monopoly, which is unacceptable to practically everybody. The other panelist, journalist, venture capitalist and all-round net guru, Esther Dyson, noted that cyberspace is creating competition for governments. The US government is competing vertically with organizations such as Truste, the self-regulating internet privacy initiative (on whose board Dyson sits), which she says is creating a jurisdiction of its own about privacy, or data control, as Dyson prefers to call it. There are multiple jurisdictions within cyberspace – it is not one homogenous mass, and the DNS and privacy are just two such jurisdictions. Lessig concluded that the DNS governance issue shows just how infectious the idea that representative government is no good has become, so much so that even the government didn’t think it would be a good idea to maintain some government control over the DNS. We’re not democratic anymore…and it should force us to figure out just why.