Who Will Control the Internet?

The news, detailed in excellent fashion yesterday by Jason Pye in this space, that around 5 pm Friday — after many on the Hill had left their offices — the Obama administration formally relinquished involvement/control over the internet to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, was met with what has become a trademark in analysis of this current executive office: confusion.

Why would this administration quietly make a move like this now when — despite the loud and dire warnings of net neutrality enthusiasts — the internet is working pretty well by most standards of measurement (i.e. is free and open, relatively cheap, easily accessible, and rarely plagued by massive outages)?

Admittedly, ICANN has been a huge player in managing Internet architecture since it was created in 1998 as something like a quasi-governmental non-profit that would take control of the technical maintenance of root servers as well as managing all the unique identifiers associated with surfing the web — IP addresses, domain names, registries and the like. So it’s not like government is handing control over as much as they’re just stepping back and letting ICANN assume all responsibility when the contract expires with the group in 2015. Isn’t less government involvement in the business of the internet desirable?

That’s where things get fun. Because, as Politico points out, ICANN has spent a great deal of effort “to transform itself into a global organization free of U.S. ties.” And of course, the recent spying revelations by one Edward Snowden are being used as justification as to why the US should just back off already. And, because the desire seems to be to globalize architecture management in a stakeholder fashion, many GOP lawmakers worry that another government, one less concerned with free speech and easy access, may jump in to take their place. As Charles C.W. Cooke writes in National Journal:

The question at hand, therefore, is less whether there should be any oversight of the Internet’s basics, and more who is best placed to perform this role. “Without the U.S. government providing an effective backstop to ICANN’s original operating principles, there would be no mechanism in place to stop foreign governments from interfering with ICANN’s operations,” the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Daniel Castro wrote on Friday. He’s right. Across two decades, multiple administrations, and a host of dramatic changes, the American state has proven itself a worthy overseer of the work of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). We might worry about who is reading our e-mails, but we don’t fret about the Internet’s being restricted at its core. We may be concerned about the lack of free communication in other countries, but we don’t have to sweat about those countries’ governments shutting off our access here. And yet, having grown cocky in its maturity, the U.S. government is now considering inviting those countries’ censors to the table and giving them a vote on how to fix a problem that never was. Why?

The Wall Street Journal, however, assuages fears in a pretty complete little post detailing the facts and addressing some of the concerns. Their assessment? Nothing to worry about — right now anyway.

What happens after that? ICANN will be subject to some new form of multistakeholder oversight, possibly a new organization assembled from the various international bodies that have an interest in how the Internet is managed.

Will this mean that we have a multilateral body like the United Nations controlling the Internet? In short, no. Larry Strickling, head of the Commerce Department agency that oversees ICANN, said a main objective for the U.S. is to make sure that NTIA isn’t replaced by the U.N. or another governmental organization. Mr. Strickling said he’s confident that a solution can be reached; the implication is that the U.S. is not going to back out unless it’s sure another government-led organization isn’t going to take its place.

Should we be worried about censorship? Most stakeholders don’t believe that releasing ICANN from the Commerce Department’s contract will lead to censorship, but down the road there will likely be debates about things like copyright and spam, and whether they should be policed as part of the domain name system. Censorship would inevitably be part of those debates.

But the question remains: why now and why so quiet about the decision? It could be for no other reason than the contract is coming due and Snowden has changed the playing field. But ICANN has been working for a while to “mature” to this point so the Snowden excuse rings slightly hollow. And, while the Friday news dump is generally used to release news of potentially contentious or unpopular decisions, one has to ask why they thought this decision should fly under the radar.

And perhaps the biggest question is this: why does this administration continue to try to fix things that aren’t broken?

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