In this week’s discussion, we returned to exploring the history of the Internet. Our guest, Professor Zittrain, talked at length specifically about the topic of Internet governance. Even today, control over the Internet remains an important issue. In the early day’s, there were a host of organizations – IANA/Jon Postel, ICANN, etc. – which claimed to regulate the Internet in some way. In a sense, this was fine back in the day. Everyone who used the Internet probably knew each other, at least tangentially. Jon Postel knew the people to whom he was assigning domain names, and there was not really any competition at play.
Today, however, we live in an era where the Internet is largely decentralized – in theory, anyway. With so many users and so many sites serving up content, there can’t really be one entity which decides who gets what. In different countries, for example, the Internet looks vastly different, especially when comparing the loose regulation of the U.S. to, say, the tight constraints of China. Yet, on the other hand, we also have large companies like Facebook and Google, in particular, in a sense curating many Internet users’ experiences. To navigate to a website, most people search it up on Google. And, a lot of people will rely heavily on the Facebook feed for updates.
Similarly, when it comes to domain names, we have companies like GoDaddy and Amazon making profits. Here especially, one must ask, what qualifies these companies to make money off a system that is intended to be open and decentralized. It seems wrong for someone to be making a profit off of something that should be the public domain (no pun intended). Yet, the other solution is to have some agency control aspects of the Internet. Certainly, we wouldn’t want the government to poke its head into this realm, and there isn’t an organization that would handle it for free or without bias.
Perhaps then, as with the economy, the best way to make something as free as possible is to turn it into a competitive marketplace. Of course, even in our open market, we still have protections in place, to prevent monopolies, for example. The question remains then, can the Internet really remain decentralized forever, and if not, who should take the responsibility for its regulation, and to what extent?