SAN MATEO (07/17/2000) - When this column is published, I'll be in Yokohama, Japan, covering the board meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Last week, I described this private nonprofit corporation, formed in 1998 under contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce. ICANN is making decisions about the voting rights of Internet users and to whom it will grant some valuable domain names -- names that will be created in an expanded name space beyond.com.
This week, I'm writing my column before the board's meeting scheduled for July 16. But you're reading it after they've acted. Based on interviews, I can predict what they'll do.
But first, I want to refresh our memories about what makes ICANN's decisions crucially important to all Windows users and computer information professionals.
Someday, I'll warm up my car before leaving my house by sending a command to the computer known as toyota.brianlivingston.com. I'll cause a few handouts to be printed before I get to my office by sending a command to xerox.brianlivingston.com.
There will be 10 billion people in the world soon, and they're going to need names for every business, club, and device they'll ever have. That includes Pocket PCs, Palms, and new toys we haven't even conceived of yet.
The year 2000 is a critical turning point for Internet and Web users. The Net is rounding a corner that will determine whether it expands as a universal, democratic medium or a centrally programmed and controlled one.
It's hard to imagine the Net being centrally programmed, with the present riot of new Web sites. But let's review what happened with other promising technologies.
In the 1970s, creative artists became enthralled by small, portable, relatively inexpensive video cameras.
These were going to allow everyone to express their individuality. Locally created content could be cheaply distributed on a new network then being laid with enormous bandwidth: television via cable.
What actually happened was that the U.S. Congress passed laws granting an exclusive monopoly to a single cable corporation in each major city.
Today, prices are high and the service is irritating. There are a few (poorly funded) public-access facilities. But most people get the same 100 centrally controlled channels, programmed from above.
Compare this with the 1980s hit, citizens-band radio. Back then, newspapers were full of stories about car and truck drivers chatting about love, life, and current road conditions.
No one ever commercialized CB radio. People are still chatting away, but no centralized programming or control developed, because profit potential wasn't there.
Every major new medium has gone through a shift toward either "shared monopoly" or "everybody's technology."
The introduction of audio CDs concentrated record labels, making music disks cost more than ever. By contrast, ham radio was never commercialized, and millions still use it to communicate freely.
We once thought the Internet would stay personal and decentralized -- but instead it's being steered toward centralized programming, as was the cable industry.
ICANN could emphasize decentralization. Or it could make the Internet become much more centrally controlled. If we get the latter, most Web surfers might some day cycle through the same 100 sites (as television viewers do with today's 100 cable channels).
It would only take a few laws and slightly more deference to special interests than ICANN has already shown. Payments to a few search engines would make only the most commercial sites show up on page 1 of every search. Some engines are selling their top slots already.
After ICANN got its contract in November 1998, it held board meetings behind closed doors until the practice was widely denounced. The board meetings are open now. But the old ways die hard. ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee -- composed of the governments that pay fees to ICANN -- has formally notified me that its parallel meetings in Yokohama are closed to me and every other member of the press and public.
I said I'd predict what the ICANN board did on July 16. Here goes: The board changed its bylaws to reduce from nine to five the number of guaranteed seats that Internet users will democratically vote for on the 19-member board. The board called for proposals, starting Aug. 1, from companies that wish to operate registries for new domain types.
It remains to be seen whether ICANN will approve limitless new registries, or artificially restrict the supply to only two or three.
Right now, go to members.icann.org/join _now.htm and register to vote. Then check back with me next week.
Brian Livingston's latest book is Windows 2000 Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. He regrets he cannot answer individual questions.