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Let the geeks watch over the internet

Von David Ignatius


Washington - As Russian intelligence agencies escalate their use of the U.S.-created internet as a tool of political sabotage, it's haunting to recall the famous communist dictum: "The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them."

Against this menacing background, the subject of internet governance - long an arcane topic of discussion among geeks and technologists - takes on crucial political importance. Who will protect the integrity of the basic structure of domain names and addresses on which the internet operates? What protects the world from future efforts by Russia or China, or the U.S., for that matter, to subvert a free and open internet?

The hero of this story turns out to be a little-known, quasi-private oversight group known as ICANN, which stands for the "Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers." It was founded in 1998 to take over an informal system that had been managed by an early internet guru named Jon Postel, an eccentric, computer-science professor at the University of Southern California.

Postel and his techie friends created a structure for public use of the communications network that had been built in the late 1960s by the Pentagon. The engineers created a system of domain names - the now-universally familiar array of ".mil," ".gov," ".edu," ".org," ".net" and ".com." To help users find their way electronically to the right computer, they built a naming system that had minimal central management and great autonomy for users.

The genius of the early system was that it was, essentially, ungoverned. "The internet had little control at the core and innovation at the edges," explains Steve Crocker, the current chairman of ICANN, in an interview. Rather than bureaucratic rules and boundaries, there were engineering protocols.

Postel died in 1998, just before the Bill Clinton administration launched its plan to charter ICANN to take over the operations that had been run, figuratively speaking, out of Postel's shoebox of index cards at USC.

The new corporation had a contract with the Commerce Department to maintain the system. So in that sense, the U.S. had oversight, but ICANN officials say it was rarely exercised. ICANN also supervised Postel's system of national suffixes, such as ".uk" or ".ru," which helped other countries join the network. This unitary, unregulated internet quickly spread to every corner of global life and commerce.

This technological Arcadia inevitably drew complaints from countries that resented ICANN's U.S. base. These critics proposed a takeover by the International Telecommunication Union, a stodgy, bureaucratic U.N. agency that was headed at the time by a Russian-educated engineer from Mali, who was succeeded in 2015 by the Chinese deputy secretary-general.

But the advocates of a free and open internet fought back. Fadi Chehade, an Egyptian-American who was then-president of ICANN, began campaigning to keep control out of the hands of governments, bureaucrats and potential censors. Chehade and the Obama administration both recognized that after the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013, the price of ICANN's continued control would be severance of its ties to the U.S. government. Chehade made that pitch to Brazil, China and India - three countries that had been eager for ITU control. And amazingly enough, he succeeded.

Chehade says in an interview that the argument he made was simple: If the ICANN-managed system broke, "we no longer have one internet."

ICANN's contract with the Commerce Department is set to expire Sept. 30. A few Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, are trying to block the transition, arguing that it will give away control of the Internet to Russia, China and other potential abusers. But Crocker and Chehade argue that continuation of this peculiar, independent, tech-driven body is in fact the only way to keep the system open and honest.

Crocker explains the protections that ICANN has designed into the system. If any nation, or private hacker, tries to introduce bad information into the architecture, it will be detected instantly. And sabotaging domain names will be impossible because the information is so widely distributed. A committee of engineers, drawn from the U.S., Europe and Asia, will oversee the "root" system that Postel created. Another global panel of engineers will guard the system's security.

The genius of the internet is that nobody owns it. The vulnerability of the information that rests atop this platform was shown by the recent Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee. But the underlying system looks more secure - and is probably best protected by ICANN's global alliance of geeks, rather than any government or agency.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius was the executive editor of the "International Herald Tribune". His column also appears in the "Washington Post".