Internet governance stories require sharp writing to keep them interesting -- I don't think I'm the only one who starts to lose consciousness as soon as the words "Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers" (ICANN) roll before my eyes. But the Wall Street Journal pulled off a tour de force yesterday with Christopher Rhoads' piece about the looming peril of Internet balkanization. (The Journal article is here; non-subscribers shouldn't have much trouble finding the full text with a little Googling.)
As Paul Vixie, one of the architects of the Internet, writes on his own Web site, "If one of my kids, or anybody anywhere, sits down in front of a Web browser and keys in a URL, it ought to just work. They ought to see the same Web page that anybody else would see, no matter what country they're in or what their ISP wants or what their local church or government wants."
The fact that they do see what anyone else sees is because all Internet traffic ultimately depends on "root servers" that correctly resolve URLs to the correct address. But, says the Journal, alternate "root servers" are increasingly being set up outside of ICANN. In Germany, programmers intent on making a political point in protest of U.S. control over the Internet's root servers set up their own system. Other alternatives include new networks based on non-Roman alphabets, such as Chinese or Arabic.
The fear down the line is that dueling root servers will fragment the Net, which means that you might type a URL into your computer and never get there, perhaps because the Chinese government has cut off access to its own private Internet, or because German rebels have completely lost patience with George W. As a card-carrying Internet universalist, I'll admit that the idea that the Net might not connect everyone and everything fills me with existential angst. I need to be able to e-mail every living being in the Matrix! It is my natural right as a citizen of cyberspace!
But I'm not quite ready to join the chorus of bloggers screaming, "The Internet is falling, the Internet is falling." For one thing, I think the hype about the pristine glory of the "global" Internet has always been overrated. It's been great from the beinning if you were a English speaker, but for the vast majority of, say, Chinese with minimal English abilities, not so much. Let 'em have their own Internets, I say. There's room for everyone.
But even more fundamentally, there is, in the digital age, an inexorable tendency for networks to become more interconnected, not less. Should the Internet really begin to "balkanize," that will just create an opportunity for people to invent software solutions that, in John Perry Barlow's immortal words, treat the barriers as "a malfunction and route around it." China can do its level best to keep its Great Firewall firm, but if its leaders really are committed to long-term economic growth, I don't see how they will succeed in slicing cyberspace into a feudal anarchy of warring kingdoms.