Canada, the Internet needs you

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On February 27, 2012 CIRA hosted a unique meeting on the future of the Internet in Canada. The Canadian Internet Forum (CIF) brought together leading Canadian and international Internet experts and more than 400 interested citizens. Another 100 participated in an online forum CIRA hosted leading up to this event.

While the Internet is one of the greatest drivers of positive social and economic change the world has seen, there have been few opportunities for citizens to have their say about its development. Fact is, most of us don’t even think about how it runs, or who runs it.

In my opinion, this is both unfortunate and increasingly perilous. I’m reminded of a sign I saw at one of the many SOPA protests across North America over the past few months, “It is no longer okay not to know how the Internet works.”

We are moving more and more of our lives online. The Internet has become an integral part of the economic, political and social lives of all Canadians. It is everywhere and is now part of the social and economic fabric of this nation. Unfortunately, there are people who would like to take advantage of this new found ubiquity of the Internet for criminal gains.

Through the discussions at the CIF, it became clear that Canadians are very concerned about online crime, and, in turn, governments are increasingly under pressure to deal with this. Governments are reacting in the only ways they know how, through regulation and control. We’re seeing it with legislation like the recently introduced Bill C-30, and with the forthcoming anti-spam legislation. We’re also seeing it at the global level in the actions of several organizations and nations that are attempting to extend their reach over the ‘net.

It is my opinion that a more nuanced approach is required. While governments work to police online activities and extend their reach to control the Internet, the end result may be the opposite of their intent.

Here’s the problem. Internet governance is a bit of a misnomer. The Internet is governed by the people and organizations that have a stake in its success. This governance model, called the multi-stakeholder model, works, and I would argue is the reason for the Internet’s continued egalitarian landscape and success. It is the model that has successfully put two billion people online in the past decade.

Why does it work?  Because a myriad of stakeholders (i.e. engineers, marketers, coders, civil society, security experts, and so on) have an equal voice to nations or NGOs or corporations. Decisions can be made by a group of informed stakeholders at a rapid pace and relatively free of undue political interference.

Here’s another problem. The Internet is now a part of all of our lives. We are all the stakeholders who benefit when the Internet succeeds. Therefore, if we want the Internet to succeed we have a duty to get informed and get involved in its governance.

The multi-stakeholder model is not one that national governments are typically used to working with. This model works within an environment where legislation and control are often met with, skepticism and sometimes outright defiance. A multi-lateral approach – one in which decisions are made by governments in a top-down manner – would likely exclude the experts, the very people who have made, and continue to make, the Internet a success.

At the CIF, we gathered some of the brightest minds in the Internet world to discuss issues such as cyber-crime. They didn’t necessarily agree on a path to dealing with these issues – some thought the government should take the lead; others were vehemently opposed to this. What they did agree on, however, was the need for dialogue, and for that dialogue to include all affected stakeholders. In other words, a top-down approach to governing the Internet is not the path to success.

We don’t know the answers yet. The ubiquity of an entity as powerful as the Internet is still new to us, and is causing us to redefine the ways in which we communicate, make our livings and socialize. It’s time to rethink the ways in which we address the negative aspects that come with it, too.

If anything, the SOPA protests earlier this year proved that the Internet community has realized it has digital rights. However, like any democracy, rights come with responsibilities. In the digital world, these responsibilities include getting and staying informed about the issues that affect the Internet and standing up when your rights are threatened.

Get informed, Canada, and get involved. The Internet needs you.

Domain name seizures and .CA

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Domain name seizures have been top-of-mind for many people lately.

It was one of the topics identified at the Canadian Internet Forum, and the high profile seizure by the U.S. government of the Canadian online gambling site has been getting a lot of media attention. This also isn’t the first time the U.S. government has seized domain names based on ‘illegal’ activity. In 2010, a number of .COM, .NET and .ORG domains were seized, and a country code top-level domain (ccTLD) operated by VeriSign in California, .TV, was seized as well. In 2011, another 150 were seized.

For the most part, the Internet does not recognize national borders. Internet traffic is routed all over the globe, and it’s possible to register a domain using a wide variety of domain name extensions.

Here’s the thing – the stuff to the right of the dot matters: note that still resolves.

If you register a domain name with an extension that is managed in another country, it is likely subject to the laws of that country – full stop. If a website is found to be in violation of American law, and the domain for that site is an extension managed by a U.S. entity, the U.S. government may seize it.

If you keep your business in another country (in the case of Canada, register a .CA with a Canadian Registrar and use a Canadian web host), foreign governments can’t unilaterally seize it. CIRA has never been asked by a foreign government to shut down or seize a domain name.

The DNS root zone does fall under American jurisdiction with ICANN (through IANA) as the operator. However, ICANN has explicitly stated in a blog post that they do “not take down domain names” and that they “have no technical or legal authority to do that.”

The fact is ICANN couldn’t cherry-pick domains even if it wanted to. If the U.S. government decided that they wanted to shut down a .CA website, and tried to do it through ICANN, they would have to shut down all of .CA in the root zone. This would involve cutting off every single .CA website and email address from the Internet, and they’re not going to do that for a number of reasons (not the least of which is the fact that shutting down the entire .CA domain space and everything in it would be a major international incident).

The global economy would freeze if the U.S. government took such an action. The underpinnings of the Internet would be completely undermined. Think about this: the U.S. government hasn’t even shut down the Internet in nations they’ve been at war or have very strained relations with – Iraq, Libya, Iran are just a few examples – because the trust that supports the Internet is fundamental to the economic and social well-being of humanity.  Given that, why would they shut down an entire top level domain over a single website?

The Internet has brought us incredible benefits, many due to the fact that it breaks down national and geographic borders.  However, because of the very nature of the Internet – the fact that it is ‘virtual’ and ‘in the cloud’ – most of us don’t tend to think of it being governed by the laws of a particular nation. But as the case demonstrates, it is critically important to be aware of which jurisdiction your digital assets are in, and therefore what laws they may be subject to.