Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Article publication date: 1 December 2004

Keywords

Citation

Whitley, E.A. (2004), "Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace", Information Technology & People, Vol. 17 No. 4. https://doi.org/10.1108/itp.2004.16117dae.001

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace

Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of CyberspaceMilton L. MuellerThe MIT PressCambridge, MA2002327 pp.ISBN 0-262-13412-8$38.00 (hardcover)

Internet Governance in Transition: Who is the Master of this Domain?Daniel J. ParéRowman & Littlefield PublishersLanham, MD2003208 pp.ISBN 0-7425-1846-9$26.95 (paperback)

In October 2003 ICANN, the internet-governance organisation, intervened to stop a new service implemented by VeriSign. VeriSign had been appointed by ICANN to manage part of the internet’s top-level domain service (i.e. the process of mapping domain names like www.isthisreallyasite.com to the IP addresses of specific computers). VeriSign’s sitefinder service had extended this functionality to provide assistance to users who were trying to connect to a domain name that didn’t exist; rather than simply reporting an error message the sitefinder service aimed to provide support information to users.

This relatively small change, however, had significant impacts on the operation and control of the internet: it reduced the stability of the internet, it confused many spam-checking services (they used non-existent domains as likely sources of spam) and caused fatal service failures across the internet.

There were also commercial and civil society concerns with the service. In the short time that the service was in operation, VeriSign gained access to vast amounts of user traffic data (who was searching for what sites) that could have immense economic and political value.

This incident highlights the ongoing importance of the governance of the internet and the operational questions around assigning and managing internet names. These two books provide an excellent overview of the who, how and whys of this fascinating topic. Although domain naming may appear a low level, technical issue, as these books show, understanding them results in a far deeper appreciation of the politics of the information society and these books present complementary approaches and styles to studying the question of internet governance.

Paré’s book is based on his PhD thesis and provides a good overview of the technical issues underlying DNS and the emergence of ICANN. He relates this history to theories that attempt to understand the perceptions of the different actors involved in the development of this technological configuration and their attempts to manage an emerging, complex situation. From these varied approaches, he chooses to view the establishment of internet addressing regimes as a process of organizational innovation.

The book reports on empirical work undertaken in the autumn of 1998 on the.uk top-level domain, the third largest domain at that time. Paré undertook a postal questionnaire of the relevant social groups involved in the.uk domain. By asking them about their views of the administration of the.uk domain shortly before the formation of ICANN, he provides a unique snapshot of organizational thinking underlying Internet governance at that time.

Mueller’s book takes a different stance on the topic. Internet names are used to map technical IP addresses to meaningful names and Mueller therefore chooses to view internet names as an economic resource that needs to be allocated fairly. For example, www.buyacarhere.com is more likely to be valued by a car sales company than www.buy1xcar22pj.com

As Mueller points out, further complexity is introduced to the choice of allocation mechanisms when dealing with names that have been used for other purposes. For example, who should own (i.e. gain economic benefits from) the name Amazon: a start-up internet company or a region in Brazil?

Mueller’s book continues by describing in detail the ways that ICANN came into being to administer this process. Thus, Mueller presents the complex, political process of its formation by highlighting the economic interests of the actors involved, providing a nice complement to Paré’s discussion of the reported perceptions of some of those same actors.

As well as differences in approach, the books also differ in their style of writing with Paré’s book being the more traditionally “academic”, with extensive footnotes, detailed tables of survey results and discussions of the tests undertaken to assess the significance of the results reported. Although Mueller also draws on a variety of academic theories, his style is much more suited to the informed, non-specialist reader.

Nevertheless, as the problems raised by VeriSign’s intervention show, governance of the internet is an ongoing problematic question and, as scholars, we need as many different perspectives and analyses of it as we can. In helping us make sense of this issue, I recommend both books highly.

Edgar A. WhitleyReader in Information Systems, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK