logical train wreck

I actually wrote the previous history of ICANN/Verisign for two reasons: 1) I thought a comprehensive history would be useful and 2) I wanted to make an observation that is pointless without its context:

I find this struggle between ICANN, Verisign, and the community of the Internet to be fascinating, because I think it highlights the struggle between two fundamental elements of organized society: freedom and order. These two things, along with equality, form a useful conceptual model of an “impossible triad”. You can’t increase one without decreasing one of the others. ICANN and Verisign represent the necessary, but unsavory, manifestation of order that encroaches on the otherwise unrestricted Internet.

We also have, I think, a very good case study of the effects of privatization of a public good (in this case, the administration of order). Despite the auspices of unobtrusive public service, authority for administration of this necessary function of the Internet was delegated to ICANN, a pseudo-corporate non-profit entity, which in turn delegated authority to Verisign, an unabashedly for-profit company. In short, control of the Internet’s “root” was privatized.

The ensuing repeated abuse of power we’ve seen is a clear example that sometimes, motive for profit is more powerful than the interest of the public good. Sometimes, the bottom line wins out.

Now, is this a condemnation of capitalism or the free market in general? No, I don’t think so. This particular situation smacks more of cronyism than any free market principles – there has never been any real competition involved. But this serves as an important lesson: As often as not, in my experience, what is promoted as “free market” privatization is in fact just a masquerade for cronyism.

This is sometimes a distinction that is lost on the wild-eyed advocates of the free-market as the cure for all the ills of society. My entire thought-process on this was inspired in part from a discussion in a post over at HobbsOnline. Bill’s perspective on Verisign’s lawsuit with ICANN is that Verisign is right to sue, and that they’ll win:

It seems rather apparent to me that ICANN’s actions are largely responsible for the growing sentiment in many foriegn countries to hand governance of the Internet to a United Nations agency. That would be a disaster for the spread of liberty.

I just don’t think ICANN had, under its government charter and its contract with VeriSign, the right to prevent VeriSign from offering Site Finder. And it bugs me when government and quasi governmental regulators block innovation, especially in the tech field, which is all-important to the future of our economy.

If Site Finder caused technical problems, they were small and fixable. ICANN should have focused on that, and not tried to shut the service down entirely.

An eye-poppingly absurd position, if you ask me. But evidently he’s not alone. He also links to free2innovate.net, a site devoted, it seems, to getting it wrong as well:

VeriSign wants to offer new innovations and services to make money, ICANN wants to extend and expand its power and limit VeriSign’s freedom to innovate, and do so in ways that VeriSign says violates ICANN’s contract with VeriSign.

No, no, NO! Calling Verisign’s practices “innovation” is an insult to the word and to anyone that has ever made an honest buck with a truly good idea.

To be fair, I think some of these opinions stem from a misconception of just how drastic the change that Verisign made was. This, in part, is why I drew up the previous summary on the history of the situation. Verisign didn’t just roll out an “offering”. They abused their authority to change the Internet – something they don’t own – for their own profit.

But what intrigues me here is the conflict between ideals at work here. Bill Hobbs devotes a good portion of his time to campaigning for freedom on the Internet, and he’s to be commended for that. But he’s also, evidently, very much pro-privatization and free-market, making little effort to distinguish it from cronyism and abuse of monopoly power.

The result is as comical as it is tragic: watching these two ideals collide on this issue is like watching a logical train wreck in slow-motion. You can’t reconcile the two positions, here, because they are inherently contradictory. The privatization of the Internet’s administration has failed miserably. Verisign has assumed more authority over the order of the Internet than it was ever granted, and as a result, the liberty of the Internet community is taking a hit. Try as you might, you can’t defend one position without sacrificing your stance on the other.