Is the U.S. government abandoning oversight of core Internet functions? What’s really going to change?

The U.S. is planning to transition critical Internet technical functions to the global Internet community. This will impact every Internet user, and you have the power to shape the outcome

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By now, the average Internet user has probably heard: "The U.S. is ceding control of the Internet!" The most common responses from around the world range between two polar extremes: 

  • "Governments of countries that don't support free speech will take over – it's the end of free speech!"
  •  "Finally, it's a true world wide web managed by the global community! No more U.S. monopoly!"

All of this excitement is about the pending transition to the global Internet community of critical Internet technical functions which, for historical reasons, have been the responsibility of the U.S.:

  1. The management of the Domain Name System. This is the system that matches a website's complicated numeric address (the IP address) to the simple "name" an Internet user types into their web browser (the domain name) in order to get to the site, such as companyABC.com.
  2. The oversight of IP addresses. These numeric addresses are often delineated into IPv4 (legacy) and IPv6 (new) addresses.
  3. The oversight of Internet protocol parameters[i] (an area invisible to most Internet users, and I won't address this in detail here).

Complex challenges

Owning the Internet technical roles described above isn't the same thing as owning the Internet. The Internet is too big and diverse to be "owned" by any one party.  It has always been the plan to transition the U.S. Government's roles to a global "multi-stakeholder" community including governments, the private sector, civil society, and other interested organizations. September 2015 is the target date for this transition of the stewardship to occur.

Of course, the scope and complexity of such transition is unprecedented. The many concerns from communities around the world can be summarized into two main categories:

Who will have the power?

What exactly is this "multi-stakeholder community?"Certainly governments will be involved. But what must be done to ensure authoritarian or censorship-oriented governments don't control key resources of a free Internet, say, in the name of cyber/national security? Will commercial interests prevail over non-commercial interests? Or will it be the other way around?

How will they be held accountable?

The responsibilities getting transitioned are comprised of administration and oversight. If one entity will assume both roles, how can it be held accountable when there is a perceived conflict of interest between the two?

To address these concerns, we need to identify the fundamental principles that have guided and enabled the Internet to become such an integral part of our lives. Based on these principles, how should the transition be designed so the "essence" of the Internet will remain unchanged?

The fundamental principles of the Internet

The Internet is a network of networks connected to hardware and software. While individual networks, hardware, software, and technologies can be owned by governments, enterprises, organizations and even individuals, no one party owns the Internet as a whole.

Because no one owns the Internet, every user is responsible for what they bring to the Internet (be it a piece of content, a device, a software, or a service) and what they bring ends up becoming a part of the Internet. With this decentralized nature, there is no handbook of official rules that are enforced by some police-like authority. While every user is accountable for their actions on the Internet, the community, comprising all interested parties, has come to agree on some general, fundamental principles:

  • Change is constant on the Internet (and rapid!).
  • Open, interoperable, and implementable standards are important, so different pieces brought by different users can work together and benefit the greater community.
  • Decision-making on future technologies and related policies should be open to all because the Internet belongs to all.
  • Follow the Principle of Least Surprise. Keep things simple. Reduce the amount of complexity a user has to absorb or learn to the least required.
  • Keep the Internet's core stable; allow "permissionless" innovation at the fringe. As the core infrastructure of the Internet continues to run smoothly, everyone should be empowered to create new devices, software, applications, and services that enhance the experience and capabilities on the user's end -- or the fringe. For example, Google is part of the fringe of the Internet, even though they are at the core of many services used by the world.

These principles, evolved over many years, have enabled productivity, innovation and growth. It's my clearly held view that these fundamental principles should continue to guide the evolution of the Internet, including the technical functions the U.S. Government is planning on transitioning.

The transition of Internet technical functions

The Internet technical functions described at the beginning of this post have been entrusted to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). IANA is part of the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a global, non-profit coordinating body, with whom the United States Department of Commerce has a contract. With the transition, ICANN's contract with the U.S. government regarding IANA will end while ICANN's responsibilities relating to, among other things, IANA oversight will change.

The current proposal, evolved from community engagement, is to:

  • Ensure a "new IANA" function is held accountable to a global multi-stakeholder community and an ICANN board of directors.
    • This could bring about a check and balance mechanism that ensures the new IANA operates properly while also ensuring ICANN does not stray from its mission.
  • Create a new legal entity under ICANN to take over the operational work of the new IANA; but oversight will be held separately within ICANN.
  • Hold ICANN accountable for the performance of this new IANA body.
  • Not give ICANN perpetual responsibility of the new IANA if ICANN under-performs.

The complete proposal can be found here.

My view

No one owns the Internet. The U.S. does not and will not own it, nor will any other country in the world. While the multi-stakeholder deliberations may delay the transition of stewardship from the planned September timeline, the U.S. Government has called for a transition as soon as certain conditions are met. I believe a transition will happen. Change, after all, is the constant, especially on the Internet. Instead of fighting the change, we should embrace it and make sure the new structure provides the best results.

The Internet is decentralized and must remain so. We can implement appropriate check and balance mechanisms in the new structure to ensure no one party gets to dictate changes or policies. This can be done -- because we have been doing it. Even today, ICANN has global advisory boards and global communities who provide advice and guidance on critical issues and initiatives. Decisions on how Internet addresses are distributed, for instance, are already made by the stakeholders. The new structure will formalize and further empower these multi-stakeholder bodies.

What's your role?

Whether you are a business owner, an executive in an organization, or an individual Internet user, you have the right and the responsibility to push for the fundamental principles to remain in place no matter who oversees the Internet's core resources. We are all accountable. Here's how you can contribute:

  • Support the Internet Society (ISOC) which brings a voice to preserving the fundamental principles of the Internet.
  • Participate, voice your opinion, and even be part of the decision-making bodies.
  • Address registries have open public policy processes. North America is served by the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN).
  • Become a part of the Internet Collaboration initiative.  
  • Track the work that is being done.

There is a paradox around the fundamental principles of the Internet: Change is constant. And the Principles must not change. We have the power to shape the change. Let's dive in and ensure the Internet remains our Internet!

[i] ICANN SSAC publication SAC067: Overview and History of the IANA Functions

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