Obama administration cedes control of the Internet


Buried in a Friday news dump the Commerce Department announced that it would no longer oversee ICANN, meaning that the administration is giving up the last remaining control that the United States government has over the Internet, a move that leaves uncertainty about its future:

U.S. officials announced plans Friday to relinquish federal government control over the administration of the Internet, a move that pleased international critics but alarmed some business leaders and others who rely on the smooth functioning of the Web.

Pressure to let go of the final vestiges of U.S. authority over the system of Web addresses and domain names that organize the Internet has been building for more than a decade and was supercharged by the backlash last year to revelations about National Security Agency surveillance.

The change would end the long-running contract between the Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based nonprofit group. That contract is set to expire next year but could be extended if the transition plan is not complete.
The practical consequences of the decision were harder to immediately discern, especially with the details of the transition not yet clear. Politically, the move could alleviate rising global concerns that the United States essentially controls the Web and takes advantage of its oversight position to help spy on the rest of the world.

There have been some concerns expressed that the move could bring regulation of the Internet by the United Nations or countries like China and others known for censorship could exert more influence over the World Wide Web. It may seem like a far-fetched scenario, but if a particular influential website was critical of whoever had control of the most influence over Internet governance, it could see its domain threatened.

Some, however, say this transition shouldn’t be politicized. In fact, as Politico explains, there are many who believe that the move is necessary to protect the Internet “from governmental interference.”

The administration is talking tough right now, claiming that it won’t allow any plan to come forward that doesn’t have some sort of consensus, which means that free speech and innovation would still thrive on the Internet:

“We will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an intergovernmental solution,” the agency’s administrator, Larry Strickling, told reporters.

An NTIA official said Friday the agency had no intention of handing the contract over to another government or group, but wanted to find a method of oversight that incorporated broader voices. Only a proposal with broad community support would be approved, he said.
Some Republicans reacted with more caution. A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said lawmakers “must consider this carefully and ensure this transition reflects the unanimous statement Congress made last year,” adding, “Under no circumstances should this contract transition to a government or government entity.”

Senate Commerce Committee ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) said the Internet “needs — and deserves — a strong multi-stakeholder system free from the control of any government or governmental entity,” and he vowed the committee would keep watch over the transition.

The question is, does anyone out there trust the administration to follow through? What’s more, does anyone trust our international competitors (ie. China and Russia) to just go along with a plan in which their interests are enhanced? Though some are talking about the news as a positive development for Internet freedom, and it may very well be, it’s hard to get excited when this is happening at a time in which the administration is projecting complete weakness and absent leadership on foreign policy.

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