What's in a name?


Is there a hunting season for libertarians in the Rocky Mountain states? Or would a close season be an unwarranted state intrusion on the freedom of any citizen to shoot them when he pleases? They are certainly easy to track down. The distinctive bellowing of a libertarian in distress, rather as one imagines an elk sounds while being castrated, resounds across the net at all times, and at the moment it is deafeningly loud whenever Internet addresses are mentioned.

The difficulty comes when one must decide exactly what all the fuss is about. People who complain that the Internet is threatened by a "Clinton/Gore United Nations World Government" have a hard time being taken seriously outside their natural constituency. Yet the issue they are addressing is undoubtedly important. Until roughly last autumn, the Internet remained governed by an unelected oligarchy of geeks. These people decided the way in which names and addresses could be handed out, in the first place because they were the only people who understood the situation (since they had built it) and in the second place because no one else cared very much.

But the founder generation is old and rich now; and the member of it who was most trusted and revered, Jon Postel, died last autumn. Other things have changed. Every government and every business in the world understands that the Internet matters; most governments outside America resent the way in which American law is exported to their countries. So a committee named Icann has been set up to co-ordinate the distribution of Internet names and addresses. Until this year, this was done, so far as it was done at all, by an American company, Network Solutions Inc, which had a monopoly over the distribution of Internet names. If you wanted a ".com", ".org" or ".net" name, you paid Network Solutions $70. That is why it has a stock market value of $2 billion after only five years in existence.

When its monopoly was threatened, Network Solutions offered to charge a wholesale price of $16 a name: the actual cost of administering the service, which is no more than a large database, has been estimated at $2 per name. The compromise price, agreed with the US Department of Commerce, has been set at $9. No wonder that Icann set as its first task the abolition of Network Solutions' monopoly, and no wonder that the company has been lobbying ferociously to persuade Americans that this is a vile interference by European bureaucrats into the freedom of the American citizen.

What is fascinating to the outside world is the way in which Network Solutions has been able to plug into the libertarian right in the USA for assistance in these efforts. In recent months Network Solutions has given tours of its offices to an alphabet soup of right-wing pressure groups: Citizens Against Government Waste, Americans for Tax Reform and the infamous Cato Institute. These make wonderful lobby fodder, because you only have to show them that the government is doing anything and they are against it; and what the American government is doing with Icann is essentially handing over to an international non- governmental organisation the control over the Internet that it had devolved to a private American company.

There were times, trying to unravel this story, when I thought my head would break from the battering of acronyms and the miasma of wet-farting indignation that rose from almost everything written on the subject. But everything finally made enlightening sense when I realised that it was all a sort of science fiction.

One should never underestimate the influence of the SF writer Robert Heinlein on the thought processes of the Internet. The classic Heinlein hero is completely apolitical. He lives from contract to contract but owes allegiance to no community or government whatever. He is in fact the Platonic consumer. Network Solutions represents a pure Heinlein fantasy: a private corporation that has grown rich because its founders were quick to see an opportunity. Now the government is going to take it away from them and they believe it's theft. What is extraordinary is the extent to which these fantasies take for granted the benefits of government: the enforcement of contracts and even the trillions of dollars of defence funding that formed the compost in which the Internet could grow. Equally, the kind of libertarian who thinks it outrageous that American federal law should apply to his own activities is seldom much troubled by the extension of its benefits to the barbarians in Europe.

There are all sorts of horrible things that governments might do to the Internet. Many of them are already being done. But the story shows that a chauvinist and ignorant American government could do as much damage as any; and that, for the moment, the chauvinist tendencies are losing.

This article first appeared in the 28 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Buy your home and kill a job