Starting from the XVII Century the India Companies have fostered imperial ambitions by extending the influence of the Old-World into newly discovered territories. These companies represented an incredibly efficient delegation of sovereign powers to the private sector. Indeed, they were a form of quasi-governmental entities, which conjugated the efficient and dynamic nature of the private sector with some of the most classical attributions of the sovereign states, such as coining money, dispensing justice, negotiating treaties and establishing new colonies.
At the end of the XX Century, a new stage of colonization became possible. Indeed, the Internet allowed the creation of new cyber-spaces, ready to be exploited and “invaded”. The new geographical coordinates – i.e. IP addresses and the correspondent domain names – were enshrined in the Domain Name System (DNS) and, as it has been highlighted[i], the assignment of unique cyber-coordinates to individual users is not a mere act of technical coordination, having a relevant economic and policy dimension.
After its inception, the DNS had been managed by one of its creators, Jonathan Postel, but its increasing growth required the creation of a specific organization: the Internet Assigned Number Authority (IANA) whose role mainly consists in the allocation of IP address blocks.
The Cyber-India Company a.k.a. ICANN
In order to coordinate IANA activities and orchestrate the expansion of the cyber-world, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration established the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-for-profit organization rooted in the private sector that, since its creation, has been attributed with the IANA functions contract. ICANN mission is indeed to “coordinate, at the overall level, the global Internet’s systems of unique identifiers and in particular to ensure the stable and secure operation of the Internet’s unique identifier systems”.
ICANN’s multistakeholder model is an example of collaborative governance[ii]. Though it is deeply rooted in the private sector, governments and public authorities have been allowed to participate in ICANN’s policy making through the establishment of a Governmental Advisory Committee, which elaborates recommendations aimed at influencing the ICANN Board. Moreover, this peculiar multistakeholder model has been conceived in order to conjugate the private sector’s dynamism with the participation of all the internet stakeholders in the “administration” of the DNS. Indeed, besides the GAC, a number of supporting organizations is involved in the elaboration of ICANN’s policies, through a bottom-up process.
Despite numerous critics which have been addressed to the ICANN since its creation –notably with regard to its lack of accountability and transparency, it could be argued that the DNS administration performed by ICANN may be associated with the colonial administration performed by the India Companies. Indeed, although ICANN does not have the power to coin cyber-money or execute convicts, it can dispense justice – together with the World Intellectual Property Organization – throughout its Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy, and has already demonstrated the power to establish new “cyber-colonies”, through the creation of new top level domains (TLDs).
From colonization 2.0 to colonization 3.0
The DNS has provided to Sovereign States the opportunity of extending their territories to cyberspace. Indeed, during the last 20 years, more than 260 country code top level domains (ccTLDs) have been created, granting an internet extension to almost every state on Earth which has officially become cyber-colonizers.
However, ccTLDs might still be associated to the “traditional” model of colonization, in which the Sovereign State’s yearning for territorial expansion triggers the invasion and exploitation of a given (cyber) territory. Indeed, although since the 1990s the Internet expansion has been fostered by private actors, nowadays ccTLDs’ governance is generally characterized by the strong presence of the state, which can be considered as the result of the state strategy of bringing itself into Internet governance[iii] .
To the contrary, recent DNS expansion promoted by ICANN has to be remarked because the strong majority of cyber-colonizers are private entities which are not acting on behalf of governments, but on behalf of their own purely economic interest.
Furthermore, this latest wave of cyber-colonization has the potential of drastically changing the Internet ecosystem. Indeed, ICANN’s new-generic-top-level-domains programme can be seen as the vastest cyber-colonization ever conceived.
As it has recently been highlighted by ICANN, 1930 applications have been submitted in order to create 1409 new internet extensions, and the protagonists of this cyber-colonization are not trying to extend state territories: they are creating cyber-extensions of private entities. In fact, only 66 applications out of 1930 (i.e. 3,4 %) were related to geographical areas such as cities (e.g. .paris, .berlin, .nyc, etc.) or other administrative divisions (e.g. .alsace and .wales).
Some applications have already sparked some tensions between cyber-colonizers. This has been the case of the .patagonia new gTLD, whose application has been submitted by Patagonia Inc. and has been firmly objected by the Argentinian representative within the GAC.
The .patagonia issue has the potential to be a particularly tricky one because, on the one hand, Patagonia Inc. has keenly followed the application rules enshrined in ICANN’s gTLD Applicant Guidebook, whereas, on the other hand, it should be stressed that Patagonia is not an administrative subdivision per se, encompassing 5 different Argentinian provinces and a small portion of Chile.
And such a conflict is not a sporadic episode. Indeed, a similar case is likely to have lieu with regard to the new .swiss extension, claimed by both the Helvetic Confederation’s Federal Government and Swiss International Air Lines Ltd, and it should be noted that 751 extensions out of 1409 are currently disputed by at least 2 applicants. Several companies are indeed trying to obtain the control of potentially lucrative generic namespaces such as .mail (7 applicants), .search (4 applicants) or .cloud (7 applicants), etc.
To this latter extent, it should be remarked that consumers may be led to automatically associate the company that will successfully control the generic extension with the activity itself, e.g. Google and Amazon have already stated that if they succeed in controlling .search they will keep it for their exclusive use. By all means, such a behavior may trigger antitrust lawsuits from their market rivals.
Though it seems difficult to determine who will finally win the “scramble for cyberspace”, the current winners seem to be the companies which have picked up the registry functions. Indeed, the majority of cyber-colonizers have decided to outsource the registry functions of their new namespaces to the benefit of some experienced “usual suspects” such as Verisign, Afilias or Neustar which together have picked up 899 registry contracts.
[i] See: Milton Mueller, “Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace”, The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2004.
[ii] See: Chris Carlson, “A Practical Guide to Collaborative Governance”, Portland Oregon, Policy Consensus Initiative, 2008.
[iii] See: Daniel Drezner,”The Global Governance of the Internet: Bringing the state Back”, in Political Science Quarterly, 119 (3), 2004.