Relax, the U.S. hasn't lost the Internet

Despite doomsayers' claims, the U.S. will remain involved in Internet decisions even without direct ties to ICANN

After watching Crimea slip away, the hawks in Washington must have been spoiling for a fight -- any fight. Because much of the reaction against the U.S. Commerce Department's decision to let its contract with Internet governance organization ICANN lapse in September 2015 has been decidedly bellicose and over the top.

Fox News accused Obama of giving away the Internet, the Wall Street Journal's headline announced "America's Internet Surrender," and former House speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted that "Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the Internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous."

Judging by their commentary, the Internet is seemingly the only function of U.S. government that has been functioning "efficiently and openly, without political pressure." The WSJ went on to warn against "America's unilateral retreat" and "new worries raised by the prospect of ICANN leaving Washington's capable hands." Washington's capable hands? Now there's something you don't see championed much these days.

In reality, ICANN has been roundly criticized for years for its poor management. InfoWorld's Robert X. Cringely frequently excoriated the organization for its ineptness, particularly after it proposed new generic Top Level Domains and a confusing, expensive bidding process that largely benefits only the domain registrars comprising ICANN's governing board. That process, according to Cringely:

... has been bungled at virtually every opportunity, and the buffoonery shows no sign of abating. Imagine if your local DMV was staffed by the cast from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." That's ICANN. If it were a limo, it would be a clown car. If it were a cookie, it would be Nutter Butter. A roomful of monkeys could come up with a better solution to solve this mostly nonexistent [domain name] problem.

While the WSJ might rail against "the surprise announcement," the U.S. government's role in coordinating the Internet's domain name system through the NTIA, an agency of the Commerce Department, was always temporary. Indeed, this transition was long overdue in the eyes of many, who say U.S. involvement created political friction and hindered ICANN's development. As ICANN's board chair Stephen Crocker said, "the U.S. has long envisioned the day when stewardship over [domain names] would be transitioned to the global community. In other words, we have all long known the destination. Now it is up to our global stakeholder community to determine the best route to get us there."

While pressure on the United States to relinquish authority over domain names has been building for years, Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA surveillance further fueled suspicion of U.S. oversight. The leaks show no evidence the United States abused that power, but the timing of the decision to give up authority over the Internet is likely a political move, aimed at appeasing rising global concerns about U.S. spying. As Garth Bruen, a security fellow at Washington-based advocacy group Digital Citizens Alliance, told the Washington Post, "This is a purely political bone that the U.S. is throwing. ICANN has made a lot of mistakes, and ICANN has not really been a good steward."

No question, the process of handing over authority will be politically tricky -- after all, control of the Internet has been a fraught topic even with the United States ostensibly in the driver's seat. For years, Russia and China have been using the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency, to press their agenda to outlaw anonymity on the Web and make it easier to identify dissidents. At a conference in 2012 the ITU approved a treaty, which goes into effect next year, giving governments authority to close off their citizens' access to the Internet, thereby legitimizing censorship of the Web. 

On Wednesday the Commerce Department pushed back against critics, with NTIA head Larry Strickling saying "Our announcement has led to some misunderstanding about our plan, with some individuals raising concern that the U.S. government is abandoning the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Strickling noted that the NTIA will need to sign off on any ICANN proposal for a new global Internet governance model.

Any transition plan must meet the conditions of supporting the multistakeholder process and protecting the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet. I have emphasized that we will not accept a proposal that replaces NTIA's role with a government-led or an intergovernmental solution. Until the community comes together on a proposal that meets these conditions, we will continue to perform our current stewardship role.

Strickling also pointed out that AT&T, Verizon, Cisco, Microsoft, and Google -- companies with huge stakes in the Internet -- have endorsed the NTIA's move.

Details of the transition must now be hammered out, and an international meeting to discuss the future governance of the Internet is scheduled to start March 23 in Singapore. Let's quiet the hysteria, drop the hyperbole, and figure out how to make this thing work. As Politico said, "This announcement definitely doesn't reflect a global takeover. U.N. black helicopters aren't coming for your servers.... [This is a] smart, strategic move by Commerce to formalize, on its own terms, a process of increased globalization that has been going on for some time."

This story, "Relax, the U.S. hasn't lost the Internet," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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