WHENEVER you surf the web, send emails or download music, an unseen force is at work in the background, making sure you connect to the sites, inboxes and databases you want. The name of this brooding presence? The US government.
Some 35 years after the US military invented the internet, the US Department of Commerce retains overall control of the master computers that direct traffic to and from every web and email address on the planet.
But a group convened by the UN last week to thrash out the future of the net is calling for an end to US domination of the net, proposing that instead a multinational forum of governments, companies and civilian organisations is created to run it.
The UN's Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) says US control hinders many developments that might improve it. These range from efforts to give the developing world more affordable net access to coming up with globally agreed and enforceable measures to boost net privacy and fight cybercrime.
US control also means that any changes to the way the net works, including the addition of new domain names such as .mobi for cellphone-accessed sites, have to be agreed by the US, whatever experts in the rest of the world think. The flipside is that the US could make changes without the agreement of the rest of the world.
In a report issued in Geneva in Switzerland on 14 July, the WGIG seeks to overcome US hegemony. "The internet should be run multilaterally, transparently and democratically. And it must involve all stakeholders," says Markus Kummer, a Swiss diplomat who is executive coordinator of the WGIG.
So why is the internet's overarching technology run by the US? The reason is that the net was developed there in the late 1960s by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in a bid to create a communications medium that would still work if a Soviet nuclear strike took out whole chunks of the network. This medium would send data from node to node in self-addressed "packets" that could take any route they liked around the network, avoiding any damaged parts.
Today the internet has 13 vast computers dotted around the world that translate text-based email and web addresses into numerical internet protocol (IP) node addresses that computers understand. In effect a massive look-up table, the 13 computers are collectively known as the Domain Name System (DNS). But the DNS master computer, called the master root server, is based in the US and is ultimately controlled by the Department of Commerce. Because the data it contains is propagated to all the other DNS servers around the world, access to the master root server file is a political hot potato.
Currently, only the US can make changes to that master file. And that has some WGIG members very worried indeed.
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