Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Internet Governance and Whether Terror Victims Can (or Should) Be Able to Seize Domain Names...

In June, a U.S. District Court issued a judgment in the case of Ben Haim et al. v Islamic Republic of Iran et al. ruling that victims of terrorist attacks could, in fact, seize the assets of the governments which sponsored them - specifically, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.  On its own, this may not seem very noteworthy.  Such money judgments are actually made quite often.  However, what sets this case apart is that the assets in question are the Internet domain name suffixes (what are officially called the ccTLDs) of those countries.

Specifically, the U.S. District Court issued "writs of attachment" against ICANN - the single institution responsible for managing the Internet's domain name system - ordering it to "hold" as property the .IR (Iran), .SY (Syria), and .KP (North Korea) ccTLDs until the final terms of compensating the plaintiffs were adjudicated.

This case raises a few interesting questions.  First of all, is a country's domain name suffix "property"?  As David Post has written, it is actually a public trust.  But even if it is to be considered property, is it really an asset controlled by national governments?  Post answers in the negative here as well:
A ccTLD, like other top-level domains, is a very strange beast; it consists of a name, a line in the Root Zone database associating that name with a specific server which offers registration services for the TLD, and all the associated services. It’s not a thing – it’s a label we give to a series of interlocking relationships and contractual and other understandings that enable the global resolution and the proper direction of messages to and from particular named entities (XYZ.IR, ABC.SY, etc.). Nor is it located “in” the United States; it is located on the global network, in the thousands of interlocking databases that allow the domain name system to function.
Second, is it desirable that one district court located within one country (in this case, the U.S.) should have the authority to seize and redistribute parts of the Internet's global domain name system?  Clearly, this is a pandora's box of problems waiting to open.  Wouldn't that grant other national governments' courts at least a similar legal ability?  Some would certainly try to claim that authority, thus leading to an unmanageable system that granted conflicting ownership rights between territorial jurisdictions - on an Internet that, in terms of technical functionality, does not recognize territorial borders.

Third, as pointed out by Farzaneh Badii, most owners of .IR domain names are actually in the private sector and have no ties to the government at all.  Badii makes the additional argument that if the Court hands over the .IR domain name to the plaintiffs, "it would be likely that neither the Iranian community nor the government would buy domain names from this non-Iranian entity which may lead to the collapse of .IR.  Consequently, the Court’s action might very well destroy the value of .IR, the capture of which was the purpose of the suit in the first place".

Badii addresses the question of whether this issue would even be raised if ICANN were an intergovernmental organization (IGO) or if "private ordering" - allowing for a consensus-based, multistakeholder approach - might be a better fit.  Good theoretical questions, both.  However, from a practical perspective, it would be a whole lot easier to simply argue that the U.S. District Court probably overstepped its bounds in asserting its jurisdiction over the entire Internet domain name space which, whether lawyers and judges believe there is a legal justification for doing so or not, is probably not the wisest or smartest political move.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Might Twitter Have Helped the Polling for the Scottish Independence Vote?

So Scotland is remaining part of the U.K.  At least for now.  A momentous event in history almost happened.  Yet didn't.

In retrospect, lots of questions deserve to be asked regarding all those public opinion polls that seemed to indicate the vote was going to be a "Yes" for independence.  Where did they go wrong, and for that matter, was social media a better predictor of the outcome?

Justin Wolfers over at the University of Michigan noted how polling got it wrong, however the betting markets got it right.  In other words, asking people how they intended to vote turned out to be a pretty bad predictor, but asking people which side they thought would win was actually far better.  As a result, all of the pollsters calling the election close were basically "looking at the wrong data to make that conclusion".

The Monkey Cage is right to point out, however, that if you only look at the polling in the final few days, the "No" movement actually came out ahead each time, albeit often within the margin of error.  Thus - since the closer you get to the day of an election, the better polls are at predicting the outcome - the polls actually didn't "get it wrong" at all.  They correctly predicted the ultimate outcome of the referendum, even though their numbers turned out to be off by a few percentage points.

Let the political scientists sort this out.  In the meantime, the Monkey Cage raises a more intriguing question: Should online social media activity inform such polling, and if so, how?  Consider:

What strikes me as potentially useful about the Twitter data is if we view it in combination with the polling data. Suppose someone had told you before the election that the final polls (Now at 52 percent) was likely to be off by 3 percent, but they didn’t know in which direction. At that point, figuring out that direction would be crucially important, and could at least in part hinge on knowing which survey response (i.e., “Yes” or “No”) could be most likely to trigger a “Bradley Effect,” that is, an overestimating of support for one side because people didn’t want to admit they were voting the other way because they thought others (including here the pollster) might think badly of them. From this perspective, the Twitter data might prove useful, as it could show us which side had the popular enthusiasm, thus making it harder for people to admit to pollsters that they might not vote in that way, which in this case would be the “Yes” vote.

Using Twitter to measure "popular enthusiasm" might be a worthy supplement.  At least for determining the youth vote.  But that selection bias might negate the benefit in the first place.  Besides, after watching Trendwatch display the frequency of "Yes" and "No" tweets the day of the referendum in real-time, which heavily favored the "Yes" movement most of the day, one has to remain skeptical about its trustworthiness in predicting voting outcomes.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Internet Slowdown Day...

Yesterday was Internet Slowdown Day, essentially a mass online protest against proposed Net Neutrality regulations.  The typical Internet user doesn't pay much attention to F.C.C. rule changes, thus Internet Slowdown Day was designed to raise awareness among the general population about such rule changes in a comprehensible way.

And the protest is being launched by large and small websites alike.  Net Neutrality rules have always protected websites in the sense that they have guaranteed that all data traveling over the Internet is treated equally.  However, the F.C.C. recently announced its intention to remove Net Neutrality rules so that ISPs could start charging websites (what are assumed to be) pretty large sums of money in order for users to reach some websites - those who would pay - faster than others.  The fear is that this would create a "two-tiered Internet" where the most well-capitalized corporate websites would operate within a faster "EZ Pass" lane of data traffic while smaller websites would have to slog along through the muck.

Readers of this blog are aware that we strongly support the principle of Net Neutrality, even despite its often inaccurate portrayal by other supporters.  That's why it's somewhat surprising to think that the best we can do is create an Internet Slowdown Day where the protest methodology being employed is simply to ask people to sign a petition and email their Congressmen.  How unimaginative.  As a result, late-night comedians like John Oliver have arguably been more productive for the cause.

In the end, Internet Slowdown Day can only be considered a success if it demonstrably raises awareness of the Net Neutrality issue in the general population's consciousness.  Will anyone remember it by this time next week?  Unfortunately, the protest participants still haven't succeeded in defining Net Neutrality and explaining why it's important to the daily lives of most individuals, and thus it remains the venue of a niche group of devotees.  As Jon Stewart put it:  "Today is 'Internet Slowdown Day' protesting changes to net neutrality rules. Or as Time Warner calls it, Wednesday."