One of the technological marvels of the Internet is that it acts as a unified system, even though it’s a global collection of disparate computer and communications networks. That’s thanks in part to the use of a common address book administered by a nonprofit group created and overseen by the U.S. government.
Now, the Obama Administration says it’s time to remove Washington’s oversight, leaving the U.S. government with no greater influence over how the Internet operates than any other country has. That’s a risky step, yet one that seems unavoidable. And if the transition is handled the right way, it may actually reduce the risk that governments will impose rules that balkanize the Net.
The federal involvement in the Web’s address book, formally known as the Domain Name System, is a holdover from the days when the Internet was a federal research project. Although independent engineering groups came up with the standards that enable networks to interconnect and data to be shared, federal contractors were in charge of maintaining the list of the names and corresponding Internet Protocol addresses of all the computers that connected online. That system functions as a road map that guides email, Web browsers, and other Internet traffic to the right destination.
In 1998, the federal government started shifting oversight of the Domain Name System to the private sector. It contracted with the newly created Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to manage domains and IP addresses.
ICANN isn’t controlled by Washington or any other single entity; it has a board of directors chosen by its constituents, which include telecommunications companies, engineering groups, and governments. Yet the fact that ICANN is a U.S. government contractor has led many observers to assume that Washington has, if not veto power, at least an unusual degree of influence over the organization.
Some foreign governments want a very different Internet from the free, open, and global one we have today. Some, such as China, long to — and to some extent do — censor the traffic coming in and out of their countries. And in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency surveillance, some countries, such as Brazil, want to force Web sites to store all the data they collect within their borders, effectively creating local duplicates of the World Wide Web.
When the administration announced that it plans to finish privatizing the management of Internet names and addresses, some proponents of Internet freedom were outraged. Their concerns would be more realistic if the United States could dictate ICANN’s every move, but it can’t.
Still, Washington’s involvement has protected ICANN from being subjected to some other government or governments’ rule. And given that a United Nations agency recently tried to impose its own version of governance on the Internet, it’s not far-fetched to think that opponents of a free and open Internet will see the administration’s proposed retreat as an opportunity to advance.
To its credit, the White House placed important conditions on its withdrawal. It plans to cede the authority it exerts now to “the global multi-stakeholder community” — in other words, the academics, engineers, businesses, consumers, and governments that have a stake in the Internet — when its current deal with ICANN expires in 2015. And while it handed ICANN the job of coming up with a new system, it said it will not accept “a government-led or an intergovernmental organization solution.”
The Internet is so important to the global economy that even U.S. allies have been pressing Washington to give up control. The leaks about the NSA’s activities only amplified those calls.
If the rest of the world can’t trust the United States to keep its hands off, the best hope for preserving the Internet as we know it is to make sure no governments are in charge. The administration has taken a step in that direction, although no destination is yet in sight.