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Interview: The hacker who'll help steer the Internet

InfoWorld

(IDG) -- Europe is sending an unlikely representative to join the board of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) later this month. German hacker Andy Müller-Maguhn, one of five new directors elected by users worldwide, is openly hostile to the very concept of ICANN, which he terms a tool of U.S. imperialism.

The stocky 29-year-old is officially a student but rarely bothers with classes (the campus, he says, is too far outside town). He spends most of his time instead at the headquarters of the hackers' network Chaos Computer Club, of which he is the spokesman, off the gloomy courtyard of a graffiti-splattered building in former East Berlin. Since Chaos moved here in 1994, the neighborhood, increasingly gentrified, has become home to much of Berlin's vibrant "dot-de" start-up scene.

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But CCC, which dates back to 1981, belongs decidedly to an earlier generation. One wall of the musty clubhouse is festooned with a pirate flag, the skull and crossbones forming the logo of the old German Post Office telecommunications monopoly, long since privatized. The room is packed with aged equipment, from outdated PCs to an ancient VAX minicomputer, which members bought at a flea market for 150 marks ($66), Müller-Maguhn says -- more as a "cultural item," a reminder of the machines they used to hack -- than for its puny computing power.

Müller-Maguhn, who has often been described as arrogant, comes across more as distracted. He talks between mouthfuls of vegetarian pizza at a nearby cafˇ, fending off calls on his nagging mobile phone, which he answers with a curt, "Not another call" or "Keep it short."

What role is there for a hacker as an ICANN director?

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I think we have to talk about the self-understanding of hackers. It's a little bit different here in Europe. Hacking we see as a critical, creative handling of technology, driven by the motivation of learning. It's very much about exploring new technologies and supporting freedom of information. If you compare our actions at the time we got started, in the early '80s, with today -- for example, the NASA hack which made us quite famous -- today you don't get into police trouble. It's called Internet surfing now, and you get punished if you don't do it.

What motivated you to run for the board?

We at Chaos know about the influence of companies and the U.S. government through ICANN on the names system, which is one of the hierarchical, centrally based parts of the Internet. Lots of people said that this institution is not legitimate at all, its board of directors is more or less completely set up by the U.S. government, so lots of people said that we shouldn't take part in that at all. But on the other hand, I argued, let's try to participate and change it.

You see ICANN as a very U.S.-centric organization, don't you?

The whole structure is very U.S.-based. The staff is in Marina del Rey [in California], and ICANN is an institution more or less formed around the root server file, and that is still owned by the U.S. government.

What would you like to change?

I think it's very important to have different name spaces where different rules apply. The idea of trademark rules is an idea that belongs to a commercial environment, and the Internet is not such a commercial environment, it's a public space.

So how would you separate off those commercial spaces in practice?

You could give commercial spaces their own TLD's [top-level domains], like .tm, or have that as a secondary TLD level, .tm.de or whatever, so that the different nations could have their trademark laws. Currently the decisions are made often through lawsuits in very different places, so if you today take a domain name you don't have the safety that this is really yours, because it might be you get in trouble with some Egyptian company having a toaster with that name or whatever. There need to be clear policies.

Would you allow users to set up their own TLDs?

Yeah, or at least small companies. I mean, you need some technical stuff for that, but there's no natural limitation. The feeling you get is that ICANN just wants to keep the numbers small to keep control, to have this more or less American culture rule everywhere. I think we need lots more diversity, and there is no technical reason why not.

Let's talk about the government role in administering TLDs. During the recent elections in Serbia, it's pretty well-documented that the Milosevic government was manipulating opposition groups' domain names. What can ICANN do about that kind of tampering?

This form of misuse comes from the structure of the name system. The root server file itself means that all cc [country code] and gTLDs [generic top-level domains] are in that, and if the U.S. government would come into struggle or into war with any kind of country, let's say India or whatever, they would be able to just change the database entry of the whole country just as Milosevic did. So that's a good reason to change the name system technically and avoid such a possibility of misuse.

In what other ways is the naming structure U.S.-centric?

I don't want to wrap up the whole history of the Internet, because the things in the past I can't change -- I mean, we have for example the situation that the .com area is full with American companies, and normally they should belong to .us. I guess the main problem of the name system is misunderstanding by lawyers, conflicts as we have now with name-space holders against trademark holders and so on. In the future I'd like to change this by opening it up. Why not just have a network of parallel universes, instead of trying to make one big culture? This attempt at an Internet world government or however you want to call it, it's more or less an attempt at cultural imperialism, and I'm not a friend of that.

Would you be more in favor of anarchy?

What is anarchy? A parallel existence of cultural entities with their own space, respecting each other. Yes, that's what I want, and if you want to call that anarchy, call that anarchy.

Müller-Maguhn and the other new board members, will begin their duties at ICANN's annual meeting Nov. 13 through Nov. 16, in Marina del Rey.




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