Monday, September 05, 2005

Talking to the Owls

I had an interesting experience talking to the Owl Club last month about "Is the Internet Governable?". The talk was challenging in that I was supposed to "Make it witty!", and interesting to see how a white anglo-saxon male 'club' (that's no longer restricted but still ends up this way). I hope that the write up of my talk maybe useful.


Following the Grace, said by Owl Nigel Bruce, and which triggered an immediate risible reaction from all present, 61 Owls and 7 guests sat down to an excellent meal of Caramelised Sweet Potato, Pear and Blue Cheese Soup/ Chicken Thighs with Sweet Pepper and Mushroom Sauce, Fine Beans, Butternut and Rice/ Raspberry Pavlova.

Owl Duncan Greaves has provided the following precis of the next item on the evening's programme: Guest Speaker's Address: "Is the Internet Governable?"

Owl President Duncan Martin introduced Alan Levine as an "Internet Man" or, in Alan's preferred terminology, as a "specialist change agent and governance practitioner". The President cited some of his more noteworthy roles:
* Alan is chairman of the South African Chapter of the Internet Society;
* a member of the board of Afrinic (the African registry for the allocation and registration of Internet number resources);
* a member of the Board, and
* Treasurer, of the ZA Domain Name Authority (about which more later);
* a member of the board of the Bandwidth Barn
(a Cape project which helps to incubate IT businesses);
* and a roleplayer in several e-govemment and research initiatives.

He holds a BSc from UCT in Industrial Psychology and Computer Science and an MBA. He was thus eminently well qualified to address the meeting on "Is the Internet governable?"

Having duly signed the Visitors' Book, Alan began his remarks by noting that, in addition to these descriptions, he had also been called "a man for whom the Internet is normal". He was especially pleased to be able to speak to the Owls since two previous arrangements to speak had failed at the last minute because of familial obligations - and today happened to be his mother's birthday! He was especially mindful of his mother because he had grown up in the midst of a cat-loving family, and cats, he believed, were very different from owls. Among their special properties was the ability to send messages instantaneously and over long distances through the "Cat Network", which might explain why the Internet was normal for him. For humans, the dream of sending messages immediately and afar has a long history, and that dream had now become a reality in the form of the Internet, which makes it possible for all of us to publish and to share.

What, then, is the Internet? It is actually very simple, said Alan: just an international network of computers, using a wide variety of connections, which has been operating since 1 January 1983. It is however a very special network because it is open - that is to say, anybody can join it - and it is not controlled by any one single organisation. The connectedness of the Internet is made possible because every computer joined to it gets a number. All the numbers taken together form the "number space" or "address space", and the size of this space is astronomically large. These numbers are "owned" (and allocated) by regional organisations on each continent, called Internet Registries.

Numbers however are difficult to remember, and sometimes they change. It's much easier to remember names, and a "mapping" between names and numbers developed to ease the burden on our memories. These names are called "domain names". "Domains" are entities such as the ".corn" domain, as well as ".net", ".org", ".gov" and ".edu".

Some of them are open to all (such as .com) and some are not (such as .mil, which is reserved for the US military forces, and .gov, which is used only by the US government). In addition to these "generic" domains there are also 255 country code domains. The people who evolved this system of names generally used the United Nations' country codes (such as .fr for France and .za for South Africa).

For a long time the mapping between names and numbers was managed on a personalised basis. The people managing the Internet were on contract to the US Department of Defence but they were generally academics, and in its early days the Internet was generally an academic network. Management of the country code domains was assigned by an Internet pioneer called Jon Postel, and Postel was clear that country code domains were not going to be given to governments to manage, but to impartial individuals who would assume stewardship rather than ownership and who would work in the interests of the community on whose behalf they acted. The role of stewardship meant they were not accountable to anybody apart from their own constituencies, least of all to their governments.

Names and numbers are managed in one way; the applications that run the Internet are managed in another. These applications are things such as e-mail, the World Wide Web, and more recently voice services. Voice traffic on the Internet is especially interesting because it has been migrating steadily from the telephone network to a public, shared network.

It is cheaper, or it ought to be, because nobody "owns" this network. Other applications include all types of things: banking, education, government, travel, shopping, events, theatre, movies, and much else besides. A great many commonplace activities are now done differently because of the Internet. But in South Africa the Internet is expensive: not because of the cost of names and numbers, but because of the cost of wires. In South Africa only one company may own these wires and the cost of using them is many times greater than in other countries. There is however reason to be hopeful. Prices are due to decline by 28% in the near future. In addition. Government has been active in managing the legislative environment within which the Internet functions. There has been much recent "e-legislation" of note. This includes the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, which among other things nationalised the .za domain - it took it away from Mike Lawrie, to whom it had been confided in a role of stewardship, and transferred it to a government-appointed Domain Name Authority. The same legislation gives the status of legal documents to electronic messages, which is of course very important for spheres such as electronic commerce, copyright, patent law, and contract law. Likewise, the Promotion of Access to Information Act now makes it possible for ordinary citizens to get access to information held by a wide variety of corporate and government entities. Other legislation, such as that governing publication and the interception of conversations, has also been modernised to make it consistent with the Internet Age.

Governments tend to want to control everything Who then should control the Internet? Proposals have been made to the United Nations about how the Internet's names and numbers should be controlled. Our own government was active in developing these proposals. This has led to the World Summit on the Information Society, the final meeting of which will take place in Tunisia in November. At that meeting governments will decide on the fate of names and numbers, and therefore on fundamental aspects of how the Internet will be governed.

The Internet is open: anyone can connect to it; no single organisation controls it. It is generally built on "open source" software, which is free to use and to modify, because the "source code" is openly available - unlike the source code of commercial software. This allows anyone to see into the software, as if it were a car with all the parts and plans visible: anyone can change anything and, more importantly, they can share the improvements that they make with the wider community. The pre-Intemet law of patent and copyright is not well suited to handling this radically new form of intellectual property rights.

The Internet is borderless. If governments do not control it, then who does? There are in fact two main co-ordinating bodies. One is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN is a corporation under California State Law but with a global mandate and an internationally representative board, which, broadly speaking, makes sure that the Internet continues to work. ICANN is the ultimate sovereign authority over both names and numbers. The other co-ordinating body is the Internet Engineering Task Force (the IETF). The IETF sets the technical standards on which the Internet runs, such as the Domain Name System, which maps names to numbers and vice versa. The IETF creates rules through a process of publishing, refining and approving documents called RFCs ("Request for Comments"). The nature of these documents varies tremendously - some are strict technical rules, others are simply guidelines. Most deal with technical issues but some deal with human behaviour. An example of the latter is "netiquette", which is the etiquette of the Net.

Like any etiquette it is self-enforced and community-enforced, rather than policed by a central authority. The concept of netiquette reminds us that, in crucial respects, it is we, the users of the Internet, who are ultimately responsible for governing significant parts of it. That control we ought to assert and, where necessary, reclaim.

Alan concluded by encouraging Owls to embrace the Information Age and expressed the hope that they would use their inherent wisdom to embrace the information age and the information economy and to acquire parity with the cats and their cat network. He closed dramatically by saying: "See you out there next full moon!"


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