Amazon.bomb: tech giant takes on ancient rainforest

Online retail giant tries to appease critics with gifts of Kindle ereaders

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos

 

There are some things that not even Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and the world’s richest man, can easily buy. One of them is the “.amazon” domain name.

Seven years ago, the global body which supervises the addresses and protocols that make the internet work, decided to let web users create new domain names, on top of the existing well-known ones such as “.org” or “.com”. Mr Bezos’s Amazon, which I will call Amazon inc for convenience, tried to grab “.amazon”. But Brazil and Peru protested that this should belong to the far more ancient jungle.

So Amazon inc tried to use the convoluted procedures of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, known as Icann, to press its case. It also sought to appease its Latin American critics by offering gifts of Kindle ereaders and Amazon Web Services reportedly worth $5 million. Call this, if you like, the mother of all gift cards.

Icann says you can’t

But to no avail. When a meeting of the Icann board appeared to side with Amazon inc last October, the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, a group of eight Latin American governments, delivered a hotly-worded rebuke.

Goran Marby, Icann’s head, then declared that the board would make a decision when the full group meets next week in Kobe, Japan. However, a few days ago the Brazilians asked for another delay. Mr Marby says that he “continues to encourage Amazon inc and the governments of the Amazon region to seek solutions”. But the issue is now so sensitive - and heated - that Amazon declined to comment when I contacted them this week.

How it will end is still unclear. Although the outcome is not financially significant for Amazon inc, investors should not ignore this battle between Nature and Mammon. The tussle has revealed a rather cheering irony - and paradox. These days, we live in a world where Silicon Valley groups seem extraordinarily powerful, and the US and China are in bitter rivalry over control of the web. But down in the roots of the internet - where Icann toils - there is still a surprising multilateral spirit.

Clipping wings

This stakeholder model is worth celebrating and defending, at a time when many other forms of multilateralism are under attack. Icann’s ability to clip the wings of tech titans such as Mr Bezos might be one of the few factors that could keep the internet glued together in an increasingly protectionist world.

To understand this, ponder Icann’s peculiar nature. Its precursor was first created in the 1990s in California by libertarian computer geeks who wanted to build a democratic internet, free from government or business control. In 1998, the US Department of Commerce assumed limited oversight and Icann was born. However, Icann insisted on maintaining a global mandate and sought to engage stakeholders around the world. Then, in 2016, the body shed its government shackles to become an independent operation, committed to bottom-up, collaborative and democratic decision-making.

This structure has some big drawbacks. Critics carp that Icann can be unaccountable and opaque. And while Icann denies this, everyone agrees that its processes are lamentably slow. The Amazon fight has already lasted seven years. A separate tussle about how to deal with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation has been under way for two years. (GDPR privacy rules conflict with Icann’s tradition of maintaining a public register of domain owners.)

The consensus-based structure has also undermined Icann’s efforts to upgrade the way the internet operates. Although it has been trying to switch users from an old protocol, known as IPv4, to a better version called IPv6, adoption has been deeply uneven.

Benefits

But Icann’s approach has big benefits. Its obsession with consultation means internet participants cannot simply “move fast and break things” (as in Facebook’s now scrapped motto) without considering the wider social impact. Silicon Valley could learn from this.

More importantly, the multilateral approach has kept Chinese and American engineers working together, along with their counterparts from Russia, India and everywhere else, irrespective of geopolitics. This is critical.

I hope that Icann can broker a solution to the .amazon battle, and my heart lies on the side of the jungle. If Icann refuses to be rolled by US political and corporate power, that will help to keep the wider community engaged. It would be even better if Mr Bezos recognised the wider issues in this peculiar case - and relinquished his claim voluntarily. That would win his Amazon more global goodwill than a stack of gift cards. Jungles also have rights.

- Financial Times Limited

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