Oversight of Internet protocols passes from US government hands

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Pharmaceutical CommercePharmaceutical Commerce - October 2009

ICANN asserts independence from worldwide governments

Although the connection to everyday biopharma business might be a stretch, the switchover from US oversight of the Internet’s internal code protocols to a more or less freestanding, multinational “public-private” governance is worth noting. The operative agency here is ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It manages the DNS (Domain Name and addressing System), by which e-mails reach their destinations, and website domain names are uniquely identified and given addresses that can be reached from anywhere on the ‘Net.

Since 1998, and until Sept. 30 of this year, ICANN operated under a “joint project agreement” with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an office of the US Dept. of Commerce. Hence, under an “affirmation of commitments” to NTIA, the US will have “a seat at the table” of an international governmental advisory committee (as ICANN put it), but ICANN will go forward with “no control by any one entity.” In addressing concerns raised in Congress, ICANN agreed that it will remain on US soil, but otherwise, only commits to being “in the public interest” in its future decisionmaking.

Since the Internet has successfully grown into a vast network with billions of users around the world, one can argue that its present management has been successful. But there are problems: for one, critics point to the existence of “cybersquatting,” or unauthorized use of domain names by counterfeiters of, among other things, pharmaceuticals as a weakness of the system. Other practices of ICANN, revolving around the privacy of the ownership of domains, or the conventions around so-called “generic top-level domain names” have raised concerns.

ICANN, with its roots among academics in the early days of the ‘Net, has had an unusually autonomous position for something so critical to modern communications. One hopes it will continue to do so.

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