Late last week the Obama administration announced a plan to begin moving forward with the process of relinquishing the U.S. government’s formal control over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN – and the plan has upset a lot of people.
The nonprofit corporation was founded in 1998 to maintain the databases that translate numerical IP addresses into more familiar domain names. This authority, known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), was original controlled by the U.S. government via one man, Jon Postel at the University of Southern California, who worked under a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense and had managed IANA since it was created informally on ARPANET in the 1970s. Following Postel’s death, ICANN was created and given a contract with the Commerce Department, handing control of the IANA to a civilian authority for the first time. That IANA contract between ICANN and the Commerce Department, created when the global Internet was still in its infancy, is set to expire next year, and the decision not to impose a new contract is the cause of all the fuss in the U.S. right now.
Opponents of the move come from a range of political affiliations, but the most vocal opposition has mostly come from Republicans. Presidential also-rans Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are both against the proposal and have issued what qualify as stirring statements if you’re oratorically challenged, decrying the potential harm to freedom worldwide if the United States were to cede any control over the internet. Former Wall Street Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz also published an editorial in that paper summing up most of the actual substantive arguments used by the rest of the right wing, criticizing Obama’s “unilateral retreat” that would allow authoritarian governments to “redesign the Internet more to their liking.”
Far more noteworthy than GOP resistance to an Obama initiative is that Bill Clinton, whose two terms in office coincided with the explosion of the net into a worldwide phenomenon that necessitated the creation of ICANN in the first place, parted ways with the current administration over the weekend during a meeting sponsored by the former president’s Clinton Global Initiative. “I understand in theory why we would like to have a multi-stakeholder process,” Clinton, a fellow Democrat, said during the meeting. “I favor that. I just know that a lot of these so-called multi-stakeholders are really governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet.”
Most of the fears about what authoritarian governments would do if the Obama administration goes through with the proposal are founded more on the potential for bad things to happen long down the line than they are about actual, immediate threats to the security of the internet. Commerce has already stated that it won’t cede authority over IANA if ICANN can’t come up with an acceptable transition plan that addresses concerns over network freedom, and in this case “acceptable” means something very closely resembling the nominal authority the U.S. has exercised since the late 1990s.
Besides, as Harvard University computer science professor Jonathan Zittrain noted, government’s actual role in administering ICANN has never been much more than a notion. He notes that the creation of .xxx top-level domains for adult content upset moralists in Congress who can normally shut down all sorts of things that make them unhappy, but it went through because they really had no way to stop it. Furthermore, ICANN doesn’t actually control the distribution of domain names themselves, merely the registries that handle those duties, limiting the practical use of ICANN for the purposes of censorship. So the threat of, say, gambling domains being blocked by a repressive moralist government, isn’t likely to materialize based simply on a shift in ICANN’s governance away from the U.S. government.
As ICANN’s former CEO, Rod Beckstrom, noted a few days ago, the U.S. government is merely following through on its previous commitments by preparing to relinquish the Commerce Department’s formal control of ICANN. Beckstrom also pointed out something that has been missing from all the provincialist rhetoric flying around Washington: by moving forward with a plan to hold to its previous commitments right now, the U.S. could be positioning itself to make palatable changes to ICANN’s governance before authoritarian governments can conspire to foist a darker vision of the internet on the world.
Russia and China, who have been the targets of much of the scorn from American opponents of the turnover, certainly don’t have great reputations when it comes to managing the Internet. China has its Great Firewall an army of online censors, while Russia requires ISPs to employ Deep Packet Inspection technology to that allows the government not just to read metadata about data packets over the internet but the actual contents of the packets themselves. (The same technology was employed by the government in Tunisia before the revolution there in 2011.) There’s absolutely a chance that these countries might try to use a world body in control of ICANN to up the world’s censorship quotient.
But the fact is that these two countries don’t have to wait for some theoretical body to be created and given control over the Internet. They’re already trying to get the United Nations to approve the transfer of IANA duties to sovereign nations via the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency dating back to the age of the telegraph. That’s exactly the kind of control those opposed to the Obama administration’s plan are citing as reason to keep ICANN under U.S. control – but most of them haven’t made any noise about the ITU dealing because there’s no political capital to be gained in doing so.
The bottom line is that the issues behind the proposal to set ICANN free of nominal U.S. control are far more complicated than the loudest opponents of the move would have you believe. We don’t know where the process is going to lead yet, and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably selling something you don’t want to buy.