“Who Takes the Internet Takes the Universe!”

The United States government has decided to give up its oversight of Internet addresses; a change that is supposed to take place over “an indeterminate timeline,” but a significant and groundbreaking change nonetheless. More from the story:

Pressure to let go of the final vestiges of U.S. authority over the system of Web addresses and domain names that organize the Internet has been building for more than a decade and was supercharged by the backlash last year to revelations about National Security Agency surveillance.

The change would end the long-running contract between the Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based nonprofit group. That contract is set to expire next year but could be extended if the transition plan is not complete.

“We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan,” Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said in a statement.

The announcement received a passionate response, with some groups quickly embracing the change and others blasting it.

In a statement, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) called the move “consistent with 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.”

But former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tweeted: “What is the global internet community that Obama wants to turn the internet over to? This risks foreign dictatorships defining the internet.”

So, a diminishment in American information-gathering abilities and a potentially unstable Internet whose content can be influenced by less-than-savory characters worldwide is yet another consequence of the Edward Snowden revelations, which I am repeatedly assured do nothing to harm American national security interests, and in fact ensure the free and reliable flow of accurate information. I’d like to think that my instinctive worries about this move are misplaced and Lord knows that lots of times, Newt Gingrich gets more than a little hyperbolic about things and makes my eyes roll so far in the back of my head that I can see my own shoulder blades. Nevertheless, as Star Wars characters aplenty are fond of saying, I have a bad feeling about this. Here is but a few additional reasons why:

“It’s inconceivable that ICANN can be accountable to the whole world. That’s the equivalent of being accountable to no one,” said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a trade group representing major Internet commerce businesses.

[. . .]

Concern about ICANN’s stewardship has spiked in recent years amid a massive and controversial expansion that is adding hundreds of new domains, such as dot-book, dot-gay and dot-sucks, to the Internet’s infrastructure. More than 1,000 new domains are slated to be made available, pumping far more fee revenue into ICANN.

Major corporations have complained, however, that con artists already swarm the Internet with phony Web sites designed to look like the authentic offerings of respected brands.

“To set ICANN so-called free is a very major step that should done with careful oversight,” said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. “We would be very concerned about that step.”

“But Pejman,” I hear you cry, “it is patently unfair that the United States should use its control over the Internet to gather information and to deny power to characters it deems less-than-savory.” To which I reply that (a) life is full of things that are unfair; and (b) if a particular unfair thing helps advance the strategic interests of my country (while at the same time being good for billions of consumers of a particular product irrespective of the citizenship of the consumers in question), I’m really not going to have a problem sleeping at night.

Kevin Drum, who I know firsthand to be a very gracious and hospitable dinner host, but with whom I have very little in common politically, is at least somewhat squeamish:

I won’t pretend I’m thrilled about this, even if it was probably inevitable at some point. Whatever else you can say about the United States and the leverage its intelligence community gets from control over internet plumbing, it’s also true that the US has been a pretty competent and reliable administrator of the most revolutionary and potentially subversive network ever invented. Conversely, global organizations don’t have a great track record at technocratic management, and world politics—corrosive at best, illiberal and venal at worst—could kill the goose that laid the golden egg. I certainly understand why the rest of the world chafes at American control, but I nonetheless suspect that it might be the best of a bad bunch of options.

Drum then immediately tries to look on the bright side, which I hope is vindicated by future events. He also predicts that Republicans will “go ballistic over this.” Perhaps that prediction is accurate, and perhaps going ballistic may be justified. Paul Rosenzweig gives us the following bullet points about the relinquishment of American control (all verbiage in the bullet points below are Rosenzweig’s):

  • In some ways this is inevitable.  It is simply untenable for the United States to continue to be the proprietor of the globalized internet domain. At some point, a transition to an international system was required.
  • On the other hand, ICANN may not necessarily be in a good position to take over this responsibility (as anxious as it is to do so). Many are worried that ICANN is beholden to the domain name registry industry, who pay large fees to ICANN for the privilege of managing (and reselling) top level domain systems. When ICANN recently opened up new gTLDs it reaped a huge profit. If you accept the maxim that “he who has the gold makes the rules” the transition to ICANN control may actually be about a transition to corporate control through ICANN.
  • ICANN is often thought of as unaccountable. It’s multi-stakeholder model of governance attempts to bring all parties to the table. But that’s an awfully big table.  In the end, the ICANN executive group usually takes the initiative and drives the agenda—and without the check of the NTIA (however modest it has been in the past) they may have greater leeway to do as they please.
  • More worryingly, from my perspective, is the question of technical expertise. It is far from clear to me that ICANN is ready and able to take over the implementation role of root zone management. The worst possible result would be a broken DNS system.
  • The move by the United States to start this transition now is either very canny or panicked. The optimist in me wants to think that the transition to ICANN management is an effort to forestall an even worse result from takeover of network administration by the ITU, a prospect I wrote about earlier. It may be that allowing ICANN a controlling role will placate our European allies and prevent the ITU meeting in Busan, South Korea this Fall from becoming a debacle.
  • The pessimist, however, sees this as a reaction to the Snowden disclosures. All of a sudden American stewardship of the network is suspect. Some, hoping to defuse the anger, may have chosen to rush to give up that stewardship, without thinking through the consequences.

Like Drum, Rosenzweig tries to be an optimist about the situation. Like Drum, he can’t help but harbor and entertain serious concerns. I can’t blame the two of them for being worried, as I am seriously worried myself.