The U.S. Commerce Department is relinquishing its hold over the group that manages the Internet’s architecture amid pressure to globalize its functions in the wake of reports about NSA surveillance.
The National Telecommunications & Information Administration, a Commerce Department agency, said Friday it is transitioning the function to the “global Internet community.” The decision marks a dramatic change. Since the Internet’s inception, the United States has played a leading role in the management of critical back-end Web work, including management of .com and other domain names. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has performed those functions under U.S. Commerce contract since 2000.
The United States will give up its oversight role when the current contract with ICANN expires in fall 2015, NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling said. He set out a series of four principles required for the transition, including that ICANN maintain the openness of the Internet. Some U.S. officials and businesses have expressed fears about the United Nations, or governments like Russia and China, taking over control of the Web.
“We will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an intergovernmental solution,” Strickling said in a conference call.
ICANN, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, has been pushing to transform itself into a global organization without U.S. oversight. European Union officials have strongly backed the globalization campaign, which has picked up steam in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s sprawling surveillance programs.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, last month proposed establishing “a clear timeline” for globalizing ICANN and the duties it performs under the U.S. contract.
“We thank the U.S. government for its stewardship, for its guidance over the years, and we thank them today for trusting the global community to replace their stewardship with the appropriate accountability mechanisms,” said ICANN President Fadi Chehade, who joined Strickling on the call.
Some U.S. officials have warned about the dangers of ceding ICANN’s authority to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency, fearing countries like Russia and China could use it to allow online censorship. Congress unanimously passed a resolution ahead of a 2012 ITU meeting, highlighting the U.S. commitment to keeping the Internet free from government control.
Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, disputed the connection between NSA revelations and Internet governance in an op-ed Friday, and he warned that ICANN would not be held accountable without U.S. control.
“If the Obama Administration gives away its oversight of the Internet,” he said, “it will be gone forever.”
Some criticism of the decision immediately started popping up on Twitter.
“Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the internet to an undefined group,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted shortly after the announcement. “This is very, very dangerous.”
An NTIA official denied that this was a reaction to the Snowden disclosures, pointing out that the relationship between the Commerce Department and ICANN was always envisioned as temporary.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller applauded the government’s decision to relinquish oversight of the Internet’s critical functions, calling it “the next phase” in a transition to “an independent entity that reflects the broad diversity of the global Internet community.”
He said the decision resembles “other efforts the U.S. and our allies are making to promote a free and open Internet, and to preserve and advance the current multi-stakeholder model of global Internet governance.”
ICANN recently embarked on a controversial expansion of the Internet’s domain-name system. The group is preparing to approve hundreds of new Web endings, like .clothing, .shop or .hospital, in the next year. Industry groups have criticized the program, saying it will increase the potential for cybersquatting and add to their costs.
The group has been working to give itself a more international aura. The group announced last year it would open new hubs in Singapore and Istanbul. And it has been touting the international aspects of its domain-name expansion, which will usher in new non-English Web endings in Cyrillic, Chinese and Arabic.
By ERIN MERSHON and JESSICA MEYERS, Politico.com