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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 191-192

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Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace. By Milton L. Mueller. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. Pp. vii+317. $32.95.

Say your name is Garfield, and you register the domain name Who decides whether you or the fat cat gets the site? This, basically, is the question of internet naming authority. It is also the topic of Milton Mueller's new book. Ruling the Root is both a useful work of institutional history for those in the field and an engaging read for those who enjoy stories of invention, popularization, and desecration of new media.

To simplify inexcusably, the narrative roughly parallels the plot of E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial: a fight between the idealists who first designed the internet and vested interests who came later. Mueller details how in simpler times naming authority resided in one man, Jon Postel, a scientist at the University of Southern California. Indeed, early standards documents instructed prospective members of the internet simply to "contact Jon" to receive an internet address. Like networked village elders, Postel and a few others ran the system using the kind of commonsense adjudication that works on a small scale.

But in the 1990s, when millions started registering domain names, and when some names were (temporarily) worth a fortune, the village-elder system was not quite up to speed. Trademark owners were furious about "cybersquatters" who registered valuable names and demanded millions for them. A company named Network Solutions was granted a monopoly over [End Page 191] registration, and then proved difficult to dislodge. A band of persistent rebels demanded the right to set up new domains, like .web and .sex, as alternates to the .com domain. And, in a dramatic turn, the U.S. government at one point claimed to own everything (it later changed its mind, but still reserves some underlying authority—an authority that Mueller calls a "ticking time bomb").

Though Mueller is known as a prominent critic of ICANN (the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), his narrative neither lectures nor sneers; he resists the temptation to tell a tale of good versus evil. The story winds down after the formation of ICANN in 1998. The original band of village elders (minus Postel, who passed away at a crucial juncture), manages to ensure a continuing role. But the big winners are the trademark owners and their lawyers. Left behind are the entrepreneurs who had proposed a decentralized approach and, as Mueller ultimately suggests, the interests of end users.

Mueller is no internet idealist; he is more of a dystopian. His analysis makes short work of the cyberutopians who take ICANN as some new and exciting form of governance, pointing out that ICANN is basically an informal version of a traditional regulatory regime. As Mueller writes, "the only remarkable and unique thing about it is that its creators have succeeded in building a rough facsimile of an international treaty organization without a treaty."

But that does not mean that Mueller thinks ICANN is a force for good. He laments its policy of "artificial scarcity," which continues to limit registration to a handful of domain names, like .com and .biz, at the behest of trademark owners. And he sees the new dispute system basically as a tool of trademark interests. In this he joins a chorus of academics who warn of the rising use of the internet to get more property rights than law would allow.

It is here that Mueller's arguments encounter some difficulties. He argues convincingly that domain names are not actually that valuable (a "dirty little secret"), because people use search engines to find content. But if this is correct, then why should we care if trademark owners get the domain names they want? And if the search engine predominates, how are limits on naming a threat to free expression? Mueller's answer is that the domain-name battle is just a proxy designed to set precedent "for the treatment of the entire online economy...


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pp. 191-192
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