SOME 12,000 people convened last week in Tunisia for a United Nations conference about the Internet. Many delegates want an end to the U.S. Commerce Department's control over the assignment of Web site addresses (for example, www.washington- post.com) and e-mail accounts (for example, firstname.lastname@example.org). The delegates' argument is that unilateral U.S. control over these domain names reflects no more than the historical accident of the Internet's origins. Why should the United States continue to control the registration of French and Chinese Internet addresses? It doesn't control the registration of French and Chinese cars, whatever Henry Ford's historic role in demo- cratizing travel was.
The reformers' argument is attractive in theory and dangerous in practice. In an ideal world, unilateralism should be avoided. But in an imperfect world, unilateral solutions that run efficiently can be better than multilateral ones that don't. It may be theoretically undesirable that the United States provides most of the security in global shipping lanes, but in practice this allows commerce to get done. Scrapping the U.S. Navy in favor of a naval police led by the United Nations would be unlikely to help anyone.
The same is true of the Internet. The job of assigning domain names offers huge oppor- tunities for abuse. Whoever controls this function can decide to keep certain types of individuals or organizations offline (dissi- dents or opposition political groups, for example). Or it can allow them on in exchange for large fees. The striking feature of U.S. oversight of the Internet is that such abuses have not occurred. Any organization that wants to register a domain name can do so, provided that the name hasn't already been claimed. Opportunistic cyber-squatting has been brought under control. The cost of registering a Web address has fallen.
It's possible that a multilateral overseer of the Internet might be just as efficient. But the ponderous International Telecommunication Union, the U.N. body that would be a leading candidate to take over the domain registry, has a record of resisting innovation -- including the advent of the Internet. Moreover, a multi- lateral domain-registering body would be caught between the different visions of its members: on the one side, autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and China that want to restrict access to the Internet; on the other side, open societies that want low barriers to entry. These clashes of vision would probably make multilateral regulation inefficiently political.
You may say that this is a fair price to pay to uphold the principle of sovereignty. If a coun- try wants to keep certain users from regis- tering domain names (Nazi groups, child pornographers, criminals), then perhaps it has a right to do so. But the clinching argument is that countries can exercise that sovereignty to a reasonable degree without controlling domain names. They can order Internet users in their territory to take offensive material down. They can order their banks or credit card companies to refuse to process payments to unsavory Web sites based abroad. Indeed, governments' ample ability to regulate the Internet has already been demonstrated by some of the countries pushing for reform, such as authoritarian China. The sovereign nations of the world have no need to wrest control of the Internet from the United States, because they already have it.