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CMC Magazine: November 1998 http://www.december.com/cmc/mag/1998/nov/haubcov.html


Letter sent to House Commerce Chairman Tom Bliley

Send reply to: rh120@columbia.edu
To: Representative Tom Bliley <commerce@mail.house.gov>

Representative Tom Bliley
Chairman
The House Committee on Commerce
The U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.

Dear Chairman Bliley,

It was good to see your letters of October 15, 1998 to Ira Magaziner, Senior Advisor to the President for Policy Development and William M. Daley, Secretary of Commerce, asking for information regarding the proposed transfer of vital public resources necessary for the functioning of the Internet from the oversight and control of the U.S. government to a newly to be created private entity.

It is important that there be a serious examination and investigation of this plan by the government. As I will explain in more detail below, these public resources that the U.S. Government is offering to give to a private entity will put great wealth and power in the hands of that private entity and will seriously jeopardize the public character and cooperative nature of the Internet. It is this public character and cooperative nature that are essential for the continued functioning of the Internet, as I explained in my testimony to Congress, submitted to the Committee on Science, subcommittees on basic research and technology for their hearing held on October 7, 1998. The testimony is a part of the public record.

There are some concerns I feel it is important to indicate to you and I would appreciate an opportunity to talk with you further about them.

In February 1997, a report was issued by the National Science Foundation Office of the Inspector General. (See "Office of Inspector General Report: The Administration of Internet Addresses, 7 February 1997") This report contained a number of interesting observations and recommendations that it presented to the National Science Foundation to examine with regard to the important question of the future oversight, control and management (i.e. policy determinations) of the domain name system and the IP numbers, root server system etc.

Instead of the NSF examining the report and the recommendations made, the agency went ahead with actions to privatize the DNS and related systems, transferring the oversight over key functions of the Internet to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

And despite the fact that there have been congressional hearings conducted by the House Committee on Science subcommittees on basic research and on technology and the House Commerce Committee into the privatizing of the DNS and related systems of the Internet, none of these hearings have mentioned the Office of Inspector General's Report or the recommendations and precautions discussed in the report.

Also in its semi-annual report to Congress, the Office of Inspector General of the NSF made further comments and recommendations. And it said it was referring the problems it had identified of concentration of power that such privatization would represent to the U.S. Department of Justice for examination. (See "Semiannual Report to Congress, Number 16, October 1, 1996 through March 31, 1997, pp. 10-14.)

The Report explains:

"NSF responded to our report by stating that 'long term issues raised by [our] recommendations may indeed require additional government oversight.' Nonetheless, NSF decided it would not be appropriate for NSF to continue its oversight of Internet address registration, and it referred our report for consideration by an informal interagency task force chaired by OMB. NSF explained that '[i]n the meantime, next-step solutions...are being implemented,' citing the proposals discussed above that would create new, top-level domain name and number address registries. We believe these proposals could result in a concentration of market power and possible anticompetitive behavior. As a result, we are referring these matters to the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice for analysis and suggested disposition." (p. 15)

I wondered why there hasn't there been any apparent consideration by the Executive Branch or the U.S. Congress of U.S. Government of the NSF Inspector General's Report on the Administration of Internet Addresses which was issued in February, 1997.

Though the report doesn't solve the problem, it does make a significant contribution toward understanding the problem.

It identifies the fact that continued research to meet the needs of the Internet is a responsibility for government. And it describes that there is a public obligation of the U.S. Government with regard to ensuring the protection of the public interest in the public resource and public treasure that is the Internet. The report says this in different ways at different places throughout but at the end it says:

"The current federal oversight of name and number Internet addresses is the natural consequence of federal financial support of Internet development. Continued federal oversight of this unique public resource is required by the nation's increasing dependence on the Internet, which is being fostered by additional federal investments in this technology. NSF's history of involvement with the Internet, its technical expertise, and its continuing investments in related research programs uniquely qualify it to perform that oversight role. NSF's oversight would ensure the protection of the public interest in the resource, the availability of funds to support future network related basic research, service, and development, fairness to the Internet community, and fairness to the taxpayers." (Office of Inspector General Report: The Administration of Internet Addresses 7 Feb. 1997, p. 16)

The Report also identifies the significant amount of money that the $50 a year maintenance fee in domain names has given to the U.S. government contractor Network Solutions, Inc.

The Report suggests using part of the fee to support continued needed networking research. (I feel there would have to be serious questions raised about whether this is appropriate, but it is important to examine this recommendation.)

In any case this suggestion clarifies that those who administer the Internet also have an obligation to support the kind of research needed to help the Internet to scale.

Also the Report identifies the potential of charging for IP numbers and the great amount of revenue that this could potentially yield. ( This raises for me the question of the enormous power that will be put in the hands of any private entity that is given control over the allocation of IP numbers and domain names.)

The Report also notes that policy issues which are issues of control need to be kept in government hands, not given over to private hands.

The OIG report discusses that though it might be possible to move administrative functions out of government hands, it must be clear these are not policy functions.

The proposed privatization of the DNS and other essential Internet functions are moving policy functions out of the control of government and putting them into unaccountable hands.

The whole result of this is a very dangerous one both for the public around the world and for the Internet. The reason is that the private entity has no public obligation or the tools or functions to enable it to sift through the opposing interests with regard to policy. The private entity (and I have seen this in all the efforts I have been made to be part of the International Forum on the White Paper activity) has no concern for the public interest. The issue is never raised and can't be.

There is a reason government has been created and that governments exist around the world. There is a broad interest that is more long range than what an individual corporation is able to consider or act in favor of.

After reading the Inspector General's Report, I thought for a few minutes about the fact that over 2 billion IP numbers have already been allocated and that there are over 2 billion more.

I thought about the tremendous power and wealth that this could represent as well as the harm that would come to the Internet if this power and control falls into the wrong hands.

If the new private entity decides to charge just $50 a year for each IP number, then that gives it a yearly income of 100 billion dollars.

If it makes a decision on who can buy IP numbers and who can't, then this limits access to the Internet to those whom this private entity deems should have access.

Thinking about this potential being put into the hands of a private entity with no expertise to deal with it and more importantly, no social obligation toward either the Internet or the public, left me recognizing in a new way how the development and spread of the Internet is due to the fact that the policies involving its development had a public purpose and responsibility, and were under government protection.

To transfer this great potential public treasure into private hands who consider it a "gold mine" represents a very very great disregard of the public trust and public obligation.

I have heard that there are those willing to pay to get these resources and that they are upset that they are being given away free.

That person didn't recognize the public and social obligation that is at stake in all this, but he did recognize that this is a case of the U.S. Government giving away something that has very very great value (either private value if it falls into private hands) or social value if it is kept in public hands.

So this is the issue that hasn't been discussed and yet this is a very significant public question.

When I was asked to submit questions to Congress by the staffer with the House Committee on Science, subcommittee on basic research, one of the questions I submitted was "By what authority is the U.S. Government giving away the cooperative development that is represented by the Internet." I have read RFC's like RFC 1917 which says about the Internet "It is the largest public data network in the world." And later on it defines the Global Internet as "the mesh of interconnected public networks (autonomous systems) which has its origins in the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) backbone, other national networks, and commercial enterprises."

So it defines the Internet as "public" not private.

And yet the U.S. Government is claiming it is considering giving to a private entity the essential functions that are at the heart of this Global public network of networks.

The attempt to transfer vital public resources out of the protection of the public sector into an entity that allows their fundamental nature and purpose to be changed, presents a fundamental problem and challenge for those who understand the importance and advance for society represented by the worldwide Internet.

Even the U.S. federal district court, in a case affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, recognized the unique and important treasure that the Internet represents for people around the world and directed the U.S. government to protect the autonomy that the Internet makes possible for ordinary people as well as media magnates.(ACLU vrs Reno ) The privatizing of these essential functions makes such protection impossible.

When I was at the hearing held by the House Committee on Science, subcommittees on basic research and technology on October 7, 1998, the head of the steering committee of the International Forum on the White Paper spoke to the subcommittee about her vision of having private corporate entities take over the power and control that government has had.

This helped me to understand that the question of governance is being substituted for the question of what is the proper role of government in the administration of important and strategic public resources like the Internet.

The OIG Report mentions two ways to protect the public interest with regard to public resources. The first is to keep them under public ownership and control.

The second is to follow "procedures for facilitating public participation and open decision making."

They recommend that with regard to this responsibility the "NSF should disseminate the draft policies and requests for comments broadly, on the Internet as well as via traditional means, and NSF should accept comments via the Internet." (p. 12)

They also mention that when the NSFNET was privatized the NSF went through a public process. Unfortunately, they don't recognize how this public process broke down at that time. (See chapters 11, 12 and 14 of "Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet.")

Once again the public processes are not functioning, as demonstrated by my report of the IFWP phony consensus process.

I welcome any thoughts on all this. I recognize that these issues are not easy for those in government, but the momentous importance of them requires the most skillful and considered measures.

Several years ago I met one of the pioneers of time-sharing, Fernando Corbato. I asked him about his early experiences at MIT and Project MAC. He recommended that I read the book "Management and the Future of the Computer" edited by Martin Greenberger.

The book was about the 1961 conference at MIT on what should be the future of the computer. Many of the pioneers who had created the computer or were working on forefront computer research had gathered to celebrate the centennial of MIT. They invited C.P. Snow from England to speak. (He had recently spoken at Harvard).

His topic was "Scientists and Decision Making". And he spoke about how strategic decisions, especially those concerning computer technology, would be made by government officials. His talk explained why it was crucial that those officials had the needed advice from people who understood the technology and the consequences to society of their decisions.

Also he spoke about the need to involve the broadest possible number of people in these decisions. C.P. Snow gave the example of when strategic decisions involving too few people were made in England and how the decisions led to harmful social results. (He cited the decision to do the strategic bombing of German civilian populations and he told how that decision prolonged the war, rather than shortening it as intended.)

And he spoke about how decisions involving a large number of people had more of a chance of being socially beneficial decisions.

The plan of the U.S. government to privatize essential functions of the Internet is the kind of decision that C.P. Snow was warning against. It is good to see that you, as the Chairman of the House Commerce Committee have now begun an investigation into some aspects of the U.S. government plan to privatize these key and invaluable public resources. It is important that such an investigation examine the concerns of the Office of Inspector General of the NSF's Report on the planned privatization and conduct a much broader investigation into the public and social consequences and dangers that giving any private entity the power and wealth that such key functions of the Internet provide.

In the spirit of citizenship and netizenship,

Ronda Hauben
P.O. Box 250101
New York, N.Y. 10025-1531
(212)787-9361

ronda@panix.com

P.S. The proposal I have presented to the NTIA is also available at the U.S. Dept of Commerce NTIA web site and you should be aware that that is *not* a proposal to privatize these key functions, but to create a prototype collaborative network to examine and solve the problems of scaling and continuing the successful operation of the Internet.

Copyright © 1998 by Ronda Hauben. All Rights Reserved.


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