Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

The International Politics of Domain Name Governance, Part Two: ICANN and the Clinton-Gore Administration

Posted on | November 12, 2020 | No Comments

This post is the second in a series about the global politics of domain name registration and management. Domain names are critical identifiers of web resources that facilitate easy access for users. Part One about Jon Postel discussed the heroic but ad hoc process of managing addresses in the earliest days of the Internet. As the World Wide Web (WWW) emerged with the invention of the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), management of the domain name system became crucial for e-commerce. It also became a controversial issue for international politics. The Clinton-Gore administration saw the Internet as a major opportunity but also a historically tricky infrastructure to manage, including complications with other countries.

The monopoly for the domain name registry system was turned over to InterNIC (Internet Network Information Center) in 1995. It was a subsidiary of Scientific Applications International Corporation (SIAC), a private company heavily engaged in activities for the Pentagon and the National Security Agency (NSA). Led by a board of ex-NSA, CIA, and DoD officials, the company made money from issuing customized Internet addresses.

These domain names became very valuable as the WWW and its “dot.com” economy started to expand rapidly in the mid-1990s. The commercialization of the NSFNet in 1992 and the introduction of the Mosaic browser in 1994 spread the hope of a “new economy.” The following year, the highly successful Netscape IPO, based on another successful browser, unleashed new investment in high technology and Internet stocks.

The Clinton-Gore administration became particularly aggressive in creating the Internet’s policy framework for domestic and international expansion and commerce. Branded initially in 1993 as the National Information Infrastructure (NII) and later the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) in 1994, the new vernacular by Vice-President Gore allowed for a government interventionist approach. The GII was a conceptual framework to challenge telecommunications companies worldwide to pave the way for data communications and all the related services promised by ISDN.

At home, they pushed an enabling framework for the NII that encouraged private investment; promoted and protected competition; and provided open access to the Internet by consumers and service providers. This approach also emphasized advancing universal service to avoid the digital divide – a society of information “haves” and “have nots.”

Internationally, their work to set up the World Trade Organization (WTO) facilitated the modernization of telecom networks worldwide and broke down the tariff barriers to global IP. In his speeches to the ITU and the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in 1994, Gore set up the conditions for the World Wide Web we know today. Gore traveled to Marrakesh, Morocco, and at the closing meeting of the Uruguay Round of the GATT negotiations called for creating a World Trade Organization.

The WTO was one of the original objectives of the New Deal’s Bretton Woods agreements at the end of World War II but never received US Congressional approval. However, on November 29, 1994, a bi-partisan vote in Congress allowed the bill to move to the Senate that year and the WTO was approved 76-24 on December 1. The WTO would quickly conclude two historical agreements that liberalized global trade in information technology (1996) and telecommunications trade (1997).

In 1996, Ira Magaziner had set up an interagency group to study domain names as part of his responsibility in the Clinton-Gore administration for international trade. Magaziner’s position paper was released as “A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce” announced by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at a public event on July 1, 1997 and became the basis for the Administration’s policy of managed liberalization for e-commerce and the management of the domain name system.

The Clinton-Gore administration wanted to hold off efforts by the United Nations and its International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to manage the Internet. They valued the international organizations but felt the Internet required a more dynamic organizational structure to facilitate its complex growth. Other nations, particularly the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), questioned the efficacy of US management of the World Wide Web. The US stood its ground however, and staked its claim for control over the Internet.

Magaziner reflected on the problems facing a growing Internet at the time. Governments wanted to tax transmission bits, place tariffs on electronic commerce, and censor the Internet. Debates on digital signatures, regulating prices, and intellectual property (IP) issues such as domain name trademarks were also coming to the fore.

“For this potential to be realized fully,” the draft report stated, “governments must adopt a nonregulatory, market-oriented approach to electronic commerce, one that facilitates the emergence of a transparent and predictable legal environment to support global business and commerce. Official decision makers must respect the unique nature of the medium and recognize that widespread competition and increased consumer choice should be the defining features of the new digital marketplace.”

The ITU had been an essential “club” for the world’s telecommunications agencies to coordinate technical standards for telephony and electromagnetic spectrum allocations. But as a one country, one vote organization, the U.S. was vulnerable to ITU decisions. And that meant its businesses were vulnerable too. On May 1, 1997, eighty organizations supported a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) addressing the way generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) were allocated and managed. An International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) was established to address perceived problems with the current method of registering generic top level domains on the Internet.

In July 1997, President Clinton issued an executive order to privatize domain name management and in September 1997, Network Solutions (NASDAQ: NSOL) had an initial public offering (IPO) and became a public company. In the first five months of 1998, Network Solutions Inc. (NSI) registered more than 340,000 domain names, an increase of 73 percent from the same period in 1997.

But the company was overwhelmed by the extraordinary growth of the Internet. Registration systems and billing lacked the ability to keep up with volume of domain name requests. NSI was losing its near-monopoly over the domain name business and the company began preparing for a new competitive environment. Still at issue was whether Internet oversight was going to eventually move from U.S. control to an international body.

In late 1998, The U.S. Clinton-Gore administration introduced a new domain name system to encourage competition and effectively manage the DNS. The U.S. Department of Commerce took ownership of the process. Ira Magaziner and others helped design a new organization called ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN was created as a not-for-profit company to administer and help set policy from the bottom-up for the Internet name and address system.

ICANN received preliminary approval from the Commerce Department to manage the Internet domain name system (DNS) in November 1998. The two organizations signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that provided for the DNS management’s gradual privatization. This involved deploying a network of computer database/servers worldwide to keep track of IP addresses and facilitate the quick connection of domain names to requested sites. Also, a dispute resolution system to resolve issues regarding the ownership of a domain name was set up.

In the next post, I explore ICANN’s transition to a global multistakeholder community management and the end of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Notes

[1] Drezner, D. (2004). The Global Governance of the Internet: Bringing the State Back In. Political Science Quarterly, 119(3), 477-498. doi:10.2307/20202392
[2] Drezner, Daniel W. All Politics Is Global: Explaining International Regulatory Regimes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U, 2008. Print. Chapter on “Global Governance of the Internet.” http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8422.html

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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