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Who controls the internet?

July 31, 2001

A public radio commentary

Yesterday, while web surfing, I got to wondering: Who controls the Internet? I'd always had this image of a giant, unorganized free-for all. Yet, it turns out the Internet is a highly organized and regulated affair. Three non-profit organizations control it.

One of these is the IETF, the Internet Engineering Task Force, that sets the technical standards. And who exactly is the IEFT? Well, it could be you or me. As their web page says "no cards, no dues, no secret handshakes." Just sign up, attend a meeting and propose something. They'll debate your suggestion and then see if there is a "rough consensus" to adopt it. By that they mean something beyond a simple majority, but short of unanimity. When the committee votes it's often done by humming. That way no one can tell who is for or against a proposal, but that rough consensus can be determined. Somehow I find it a bit disconcerting to know the information superhighway is being built by humming.

If you want real power, though, you'll need to join a committee where they don't hum. Namely, ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Like the IEFT this is one of the big three that run the Internet. They control who gets what web site name, called a domain name. When you purchase the name, ICANN registers it on one of their thirteen computers, called root servers. Then when you type in, for example,, one of their servers tells your computer where to find the web site.

This gives the ICANN committee immense power because having the proper name can be life or death for an on-line business. Yet it's run by only seven full-time staff, directed by a nineteen member board of directors. Just like all the non-profits that run the Internet you could be a member of this board. They're selected by direct election and anyone who is over sixteen years old and who has an e-mail and physical address can be nominated.

If you serve on this committee be prepared for controversy. As the Internet expands exponentially, ICANN is running out of domain names. Currently they only allow ones that end in dot com, dot org, or dot net, and for these names the most recognizable English words have already been claimed. After much debate, and critic's cries that ICANN is moving at less than Internet speed, they've allowed seven new endings. Among them dot biz for business.

This dot biz ending has started another gold rush for domain names. In the past if you owned a dot com name desired by a large company or a Hollywood star you could sell it for lots of cash. This alarmed me, so I logged on recently and was relived to get the domain name of my choice. Feel free to visit

[For curious listeners the third non-profit running the internet is the W3C - the World Wide Web Consortium. They set the standards and protocols for the web.]

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises