Wednesday, August 17, 2016

MORE IMPORTANT THAN WIKIPEDIA: "ICANN Can't", a Guest Post by E.A. Barbour

Because he's always looking at things under the radar, things that are barely noticed are massive mountains to E.A. Barbour, who shares with us the fiasco of the forthcoming ICANN internet takeover.


By E.A. Barbour

What is ICANN? It's the special organization which is being given control of all the domain-name assignments and technical standards which the Internet depends on. It was created in 1998 out of whole cloth, because original ARPANET sysop Jon Postel was "overworked". ICANN is essentially a nonprofit government contractor which exists by fiat order of the Department Of Commerce. The Net was opened to the public in 1994 and domain names were handled by Postel and other ARPANET sysops for the first four years. (Amusingly, right in the middle of setting up ICANN, Postel died of "undetected cardiac problems".) And its first chair was Esther Dyson, venture capitalist and one of the most connected women in Silicon Valley (plus an early cheerleader for Wikipedia). A later chair was Postel's fellow "Original Internet Father" Vint Cerf; whose display case at home is bulging with bowling trophies given to him by the computer industry for his magical awesomeness. His ass tastes like fine wine, judging by the millions of kisses he's gotten since the 1980s.

For two decades the system for Internet domains has more-or-less worked passably well. The US government, its contractors, and other large corporations worked with ICANN to keep the DNS/IANA system running. Although here have been complaints about large registrars like Network Solutions/VeriSign, RegisterFly, and GoDaddy, nothing was deemed "problematic" enough to call for major reform of the "system". It was open enough to make open-source cheerleaders happy and it was stable enough to keep corporations and other major financial interests content (and profitable). New domains and systems were introduced to keep things flowing. The gold-rush of the early Web insured that people were willing to allow laissez-faire--until recently. When the US federal government stated that it wished to get rid of all domain control, and have ICANN handle it exclusively. Although little reported anywhere else in the media, these Register articles give some pause.

This happened right in the middle of the US government handing over the final governance controls to ICANN. Under the government's relatively benign control since the 1980s, the Internet grew with a remarkable level of free speech, openness and freedom from graft. These stories suggest that when ICANN has full control over TLDs and governance, they will start acting like FIFA or the Olympic Committee -- playing favorites, taking bribes, and covering everything up. And the product will decline. (And most "customers" won't care, as long as they get their damned football games/websites.)


Last month it was reported that the transition of the IANA to ICANN control is being fought by the Republicans. It was even put in the2016 GOP official platform. Not many people noticed or commented on it. Of course it's being blamed on outgoing president Obama, and of course it's being used as a "political football". Admittedly the GOP is full of shit and this is merely a pretext. But one still has to wonder; once domain-name controls are fully in the hands of ICANN, what will happen to them? No one seems to know---or care.

I suspect we have already seen the best days of the Internet. Its future will likely be a dark, broken Third World chaos with dominance by large corporations. Getting a domain name will probably involve paying large bribes to creepy outfits with no fixed address. Legs will be broken and heads will be chopped. And DNS lookup will get more and more unreliable. Just like getting a Class A broadcast license from the FCC, or a taxi license in New York City. The rot is inevitable when big money and monopoly control is involved, and one small organization has the keys.

BTW, there's a Wikipedia angle here. The ICANN article itself was greatly expanded in the last 3 years, mostly by a succession of random-looking IP addresses and SPAs. And if someone tries to insert information of a negative nature, an anonymous  administrator named "Cenarium" removes it. Cenarium is a vandalism patroller who evidently has some knowledge of advanced mathematics. A very weird combination.

And that's not all. The WMF has very close relations with the Berkman Center at Harvard (Jimbo Wales is a "Fellow" thereof), the EFF, Creative Commons, and the Sunlight Foundation. The number of "common friends" they have in these organizations is truly remarkable: Berkman's Wendy Seltzer was an ICANN delegate, MIT professor Ethan Zuckerman has connections to the EFF and is on the WMF Board of Advisors, Jonathan Zittrain cofounded the "Chilling Effects" group with Wendy Seltzer and is on the EFF Board. Rebecca MacKinnon and Peter Suber are on the WMF Board of Advisors and also Berkman Center fellows. (MacKinnon edits her own Wikipedia bio with apparent impunity.) Tamar Frankel, a lawyer who helped set up ICANN in the first place, is also a Berkman fellow. All of these connected people have Wikipedia biographies, which are carefully watched by Wikipedia insiders.

More? Harald Alvestrand, a former ICANN Board member and current Google employee, is a Wikipedia administrator AND has been allowed to edit his own Wikipedia bio. Former WMF Trustee and current WMF Advisor Matt Halprin (his seat was bought for him by his boss Pierre Omidyar) was also on the Board of the Sunlight Foundation--with Esther Dyson and former WMF Director Sue Gardner. On the Advisory Board at Sunlight: Jimmy Wales. Also on Sunlight's Board, as well as the WMF Board of Advisors: Craig Newmark of Craigslist. And I won't even get into the Google connections. You get the idea.

The WMF is already corrupt in third-world ways. Some of these "free culture" Internet organizations have built-in conflicts of financial interest. Is it really surprising that ICANN is likely to go the same way?