The news — dumped quietly by the Commerce Department on a late Friday afternoon — that the US would not renew its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is being greeted with joy in international quarters and trepidation by some businesses.
US oversight of ICANN is largely credited with the creation of an internet that works smoothly and with little censorship. What would a non-US controlled internet look like? It depends who the stakeholders are and how much control the world cedes to individual governments.
Russia and China (and a block that includes mostly Muslim Arab countries) have been agitating for this change for years. The question is how can internet freedom be maintained when such powerful dictatorial forces are arrayed in favor of censorship?
As this Wall Street Journal article points out, it’s really our own fault that there has been intense pressure for the government to relinquish oversight of ICANN. The NSA spying scandals have caused most of the world to lose trust in US stewardship of the net.
The action had been debated among technologists and policy makers, but the prospect of the U.S. relinquishing control concerns some businesses because of the potential for censorship.
“If you hand over domain-name registration to someone who doesn’t want certain classes of domains registered, then you’re setting up a censorship structure,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents businesses.
In recent years U.S. policy makers have pushed back against calls from nations including China and Russia for the U.N. and ITU to have a greater role in overseeing the structure of the Web. U.S. officials have previously argued that such an arrangement would lead to the repression of free speech and the Balkanization of the Internet.
“We thank the U.S. government for its stewardship, its guidance over the years. We thank them today for trusting the global community to replace this stewardship with the appropriate accountability mechanisms,” Icann CEO Fadi Chehadé said.
Icann will launch the process later later this month at Singapore event and collect input throughout the year, with an aim of having the new governance structure completed by September 2015 when the existing contract with the Commerce Department expires. Anyone with an interest in how the Internet is managed is invited to take part.
According to Larry Strickling, administrator for the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration the new governance model must ensure that Icann is free from government influence. The plan must also fulfill several other conditions, such as preserving the security and stability of the Internet while keeping it open and free from censorship.
Those are worthy goals, but are they even possible when a majority of governments around the world are authoritarian dictatorships? The Heritage Foundation thinks that once freed from Commerce Department oversight, ICANN will line up with governments who want to censor the net:
Broadening international governance of the Internet may sound like a fair and appropriate course of action. But such a path will allow bad actors to greatly constrain human rights and freedoms. The irony of the Montevideo Statement is that, in trying to combat balkanization of the Internet and Internet surveillance, it makes ICANN more vulnerable to autocratic and despotic regimes, which use broad and repressive censorship and surveillance programs.
A positive aspect is that ICANN is a consensus-driven organization that is limited to policies, standards, and operations for IP addresses and the Domain Name System that creates easy-to-remember web domains such as “heritage.org.” Similarly, other organizations, including the IETF, the IAB, and the Internet Society, are also consensus-based organizations with specific functions. As long as these organizations are limited in purpose and make consensus-based policy decisions, the U.S. can ensure a free and powerful Internet through consistent involvement and engagement with Internet-governance organizations.
Furthermore, the U.S. must work with these various Internet governance organizations as well as allies to prevent the ITU from taking over responsibility for the Internet. Unlike ICANN and other non-profit organizations, the ITU is a political organization that autocratic governments can use to exercise and justify increased power over crucial aspects of the Internet, especially within their borders. Defeating cyber sovereignty and other efforts that empower the ITU and autocratic governments should be central to the U.S. Internet freedom agenda.
One might feel reassured about internet freedom if the Obama administration was committed to preventing other nations from controlling it. The fact is, the administration well knows the lay of the land and that the ITU, goaded on by China, Russia, and Arab countries, might seek to hijack internet governance and turn the regulators into puppets to serve their interests.
This would be highly unlikely — unless the US allowed it to happen. Given the internationalist bent of the administration, such a turn of events cannot be ruled out.