NOBODY owns the entire Internet, but forthcoming changes will have worldwide impact on its use for everything from commerce to political speech, writes Dr James Jay Carafano.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit private American company, currently manages core functions including assigning and managing domain names and IP addresses, under a contract with the US government.
The Obama administration announced in March 2014 that it did not intend to renew the contract. A press release by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said Washington would ‘transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multi-stakeholder community’.
In other words, it would remove itself from all involvement in the governance of the Internet, relying on a global community to protect and maintain its current open-exchange format.
At the time, the administration lacked a specific plan for the move. The resulting debate and controversy leaves the nature of the transfer in doubt and the outcome could have a dramatic impact on the conduct of online activities.
The NTIA announcement that it planned not to renew the contract with ICANN when it expires in 2015 came in the wake of the controversy over revelations of US intelligence collecting data on the Internet by its National Security Agency.
Instead, it told ICANN to meet ‘global stakeholders’ and fashion an alternative management structure to replace the role the NTIA currently holds in coordinating the domain name system (DNS).
The announcement immediately sparked controversy. ‘This is the Obama equivalent of (President Jimmy) Carter’s decision to give away the Panama Canal – only with possibly much worse consequences,’ declared Christian Whiton, a former official in George W. Bush’s State Department in an interview with a conservative American news site.
Others feared ICANN might not be able to maintain its independence. At a conference sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative, former President Bill Clinton warned: ‘[A] lot of people… have been trying to take this authority from the US for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom and limiting it and having governments protect their backsides instead of empowering their people…’
Whether the transfer of power will be as disastrous as some predict or facilitate the continued resiliency of the Internet and its capacity to grow to meet global demands could well hinge on how three concerns are addressed in the transfer of authority:
(1) Ensuring continued technical reliability, the mission currently performed by Verisign
(2) Maintaining accountability from ICANN (which will have monopoly over core DNS decisions) to Internet users
(3) Preventing interference or undue influence from governments or intergovernmental organisations.
If these issues are not adequately dealt with, the consequences could be significant.
‘If they break it technically, then the entire naming system goes down and the Internet goes dark until they fix it,’ noted Paul Rosenzweig, a US cyber security expert.
But he added: ‘The more likely adverse effect is if this becomes either a political football or an economic monopoly problem – both could have real collateral impacts on the private sector.’
‘Another possibility,’ added Bret Schaefer, an analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research think tank, ‘is that they [the US] approve the transfer without ensuring protections for free speech, which opens the door for ICANN to be a vehicle for censorship.’
At the corporation’s recent 50th and largest public meeting, in London, a controversy erupted over the failure of the French delegation to obtain approval for freezing allocations of the ‘.vin’ and ‘.wine’ domains.
ICANN is introducing new domains designed to allow companies to use a more individual web address – for example ‘.london’ or ‘.magazine’.
The French government believes allowing any business which wants to do so to use a wine-related domain would damage its grape producers. This incident suggests the chaos which might erupt if the US plan for the handover does not provide for transparent, effective and accountable management of ICANN.
The most likely scenario is that Congress will pass bipartisan legislation, not blocking the transfer, but outlining requirements to address concerns in the transition process.
This will provide a ‘face-saving’ cover for the administration which wants to continue to demonstrate that it is making an effort, in good faith, to relinquish its management control of ICANN’s activities.
In turn, the US government is likely to extend the transfer for several years. It is highly unlikely that the corporation’s role will be supplanted by other governments in concert, or by any international organisation. Source