The Internet Needs Some Government Regulation

Dec. 21, 2004
Public ownership must be protected to serve consumers and business.

If anything best illustrates why some manufacturers aren't so eager to join the e-commerce bandwagon it would have to be the doomsday triple-whammy that hit the World Wide Web in mid-July.

  • On July 17, a computer operator at government contractor Network Solutions failed to respond to an automated alarm on the system that maintains Internet addresses. As a result, corrupted data was sent to a number of other computers that also handle the worldwide Internet directory. No one knows precisely how many Web users couldn't reach desired sites, or how many email messages never made it to their intended recipients, but estimates in publications such as The New York Times say "thousands or millions" of messages never connected.
  • As if that weren't enough, a backhoe operator on the East Coast accidentally hit a fiber-optic-cable route, disabling 500 high-speed data and voice lines, which slowed Web traffic for an untold number of users.
  • Finally, the owner of Network Solutions rival AlterNIC decided the same week would be a good time for a cyberspace protest. He rerouted much of the traffic for Network Solutions to his own site--without much trouble apparently--orchestrating one of the more dramatic recent examples of Internet insecurity. Much of the commentary that followed that bleak week focused on Network Solutions and the public-private partnership (InterNIC) that, for the most part, has allowed one company to control and profit from the mushrooming national growth of Web site addresses, also known as domain names, such as People or companies who want to set up a Web site usually wind up writing a check to Network Solutions to register the address. Repeating what has become a common theme in cyberspace, many people blamed the government for giving Network Solutions too much power and decried further government involvement in the Internet. The irony I see is that further federal government regulation might be just what's needed when it comes to registering and administering domain names in the United States. It could open competition, keep the Internet a public property, and lessen the need for regulation of other areas. Network Solutions has filed with the Federal Trade Commission to go public, and in doing so has claimed ownership of Internet address designations such as .com and .net. I'm all for capitalism, but clearly, this claim is a dangerous infringement on public territory. The World Wide Web is an awesome entity that is having and will continue to have an immeasurable impact on society. It is also a publicly owned entity that businesses and individuals should be welcome to use and profit from, but not claim ownership to. Sound familiar? That's because the same battle was fought over radio and television, and it was a battle I give the federal government credit for fighting. Can you imagine how different our access, or lack of access, to radio and television programming would be today if no one had stepped in to preserve public ownership of the airwaves? Do you think the push by parents' groups and others a few years ago that improved television programming for children would have happened without government involvement? Another advantage of government regulation of domain name registration is that information on who is posting what would remain public. So if you suspect your school's gym teacher is responsible for the site your kid happened upon, you can find out for sure. Or perhaps someone is misusing your company logo. Or has posted private information about you. You can bet if domain name registration and maintenance ended up entirely in the hands of the private sector, this information wouldn't be public for long. Regulation of this area could also lessen the need for harsher regulation, such as banning "inappropriate" content. Let's face it, pornography will always be with us, and anyone who thinks the Internet will be entirely clear of sexual misconduct should read up on human history . . . starting with the Bible. But suppose a system were set up that required companies that profited from domain name registration to meet a formula for the content they are enabling to be posted. Sure you can register a certain number of password-protected adult fantasy sites, but you must also have a certain number of educational or community sites, as well as commerce sites, and your records of who is registering are considered public records. Television and radio stations must similarly account for what they broadcast even if they don't produce it, or they will lose their licenses. Such a system would allow controversial material to exist, but would limit how much of it is on the Internet at one time. That's better than an outright ban on certain categories of sites, and would at least provide some solace to those calling for more regulation of Web content. I realize that the World Wide Web is not limited to the United States, but neither is television or radio. I rate the U.S. protection of the public's ownership of the television and radio waves as successful and meaningful, despite the fact that Cuba has government-controlled media, or that I can regularly pick up Canadian radio stations in my car. The U.S. government wouldn't be able to monitor all domain name registrations, but probably most that U.S. citizens are likely to view. Certainly, the government shouldn't be involved in all aspects of the Internet, but perhaps some government involvement would break the domain-name monopoly while preserving public ownership and providing the framework for a variety of content.
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