U.S. yields control over ICANN
The United States Department of Commerce recently yielded its control over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), allegedly to allow for more globalized stakeholders, by announcing it was terminating that contract and relinquishing IANA's control to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Though cyberspace spans national borders, many of the organizations that are responsible for maintaining the Internet do not. The U.S. played a major role in launching the Internet, with government contracts playing a major role in starting its development. As a result, many of the regulatory bodies of the Internet are still U.S.-based and maintained.
ICANN and Controlling the Internet
ICANN plays a pivotal role in maintaining all of the different web addresses throughout the Internet. ICANN was established in 1998 to help manage the growing amount of Web destinations around the world. It was originally developed by the U.S. government and helps make sure that users can navigate between sites efficiently and reliably. ICANN manages IANA. Under the IANA contract, the U.S. gave ICANN the right to maintain "root zone files" – part of the plumbing of the Internet, along with a couple of similar chores (together, called the "IANA function"). Now ICANN will have that right without U.S. oversight.
This is separate from ICANN's general of running the domain name system (DNS) of the Internet – this aspect of ICANN is still subject to oversight by the U.S., covered by the ever weakening "Affirmation of Commitments."
These capabilities are vital to the success of the Internet, as online connectivity is among the largest advantages of cyberspace. This means that ICANN needs to be able to smoothly run these procedures on a consistent basis. At the same time, many critics feel that U.S. control over ICANN gives the government too much power. This creates a difficult balancing act for the organization as it needs to be able to manage these two forces.
Washington Post Confusion
The Washington Post reported that the U.S. will remove its control over the organization, in order for the group to take on a more international system of governance. Critics had been pushing for this move for quite some time, but they recently became louder after Edward Snowden released numerous documents revealing the extensive and invasive nature of the National Security Agency's online surveillance programs. The Post article, however, confused IANA and ICANN. So while this is a major development, it is not complete relinquishment of U.S. control. Moreover, transition will not happen until the end of 2015, and then only if the U.S. buys the multistakeholder proposal that is developed under ICANN's supervision.
Nonetheless, many people would like to see a more globalized approach to Internet governance, and this move would be an important step in that direction.
"We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan," said Lawrence E. Strickling, the assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, according to the Post.
According to Greg Shatan, a law partner with Reed Smith and an expert in matters relating to ICANN, "The U.S. responded to intense international pressure. By making this announcement, the U.S. is trying to make sure the transition happens on its own terms, and that the U.S. is setting the rules for the transition. The U.S. is asking ICANN to convene global stakeholders and develop a proposal for transition. That discussion will start at ICANN's meeting in Singapore starting on March 23."
Challenges with Governance
Not everyone is happy about the move. To some, it means that ICANN is on its way to becoming an autonomous body with little transparency and no oversight. Further, there are many autocratic governments around the world that use the Internet to repress their citizens. China, for instance, is notorious for repressing online censorship polices. If the Chinese government were to take a larger role in online policy, these kinds of practices could become more common on an international scale, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
"It's inconceivable that ICANN can be accountable to the whole world. That's the equivalent of being accountable to no one," Steve DelBianco who represents an industry trade group, told the Post.
This could be bad for businesses as well. The controlling stakeholders could make policies that restrict online economic activity, or make the controlling of Internet traffic less reliable.
As the internet continues to grow internationally, these issues will need to be addressed quickly so that the online activity can thrive. Unfortunately, if ICANN pans out the way that many fear, this could become increasingly difficult.