The United States’ National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced Friday evening that it would hand over its limited oversight of the Internet’s domain-name system to an undefined, new decision-making process.
Clearly, then, we’re giving up on U.S. oversight of the Internet, and our government is hiding the fact by making the announcement on a Friday night.
“If there’s a 5:00 on Friday news dump, you’d better be concerned. Keep the Internet!” tweeted former Republican Rep. Mary Bono. She had company in that assessment, as a variety of other GOPers denounced the proposal.
The idea of surrendering American control over one of the best things ever made in America isn’t something to take lightly. Taken to an extreme, it suggests we’ve jacked into a future where Vladimir Putin deletes the registration for usa.gov (presumably while being whisked somewhere in a black helicopter).
But, surprise, last Friday’s announcement doesn’t mean that. It’s not even new.
The U.S. began moving in this direction back in 1997, then reaffirmed it in 1998 when it transferred domain-name management duties to a Los Angeles–based nonprofit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Ever since, it’s been ICANN calling the shots over the machinery that assigns domain names like yahoo.com. It’s also ICANN that decides whether to create new top-level domains such as “.biz,” “.info,” and maybe someday “.sucks.”
The government’s remaining responsibility has essentially been OK’ing ICANN’s proposed changes to the “root zone” of the domain name system—the beating heart of the mechanism that routes Internet requests for particular site names that humans can read to numerical Internet Protocol addresses like “188.8.131.52,” which computers understand.
“Our role has always been a clerical, administrative role to make sure the system worked,” said an NTIA official Monday afternoon.
In 2006, the government confirmed once again its intention to hand over that role to the global Internet community.
Friday’s news amounts to the feds saying, “The last two administrations weren’t kidding. We still mean it.”
So what has changed to make this news look so loaded in some quarters?
Some blame goes to the absurd level of inter-party hostility in Washington, and in particular the “if the Obama administration wants this, it must be wrong” school of thinking. But responsibility can be found all around Washington.
Foolish, failed attempts to rewrite the Internet’s core code to stop pornography (the Communications Decency Act) and copyright infringement (the Stop Online Piracy Act) were bipartisan offenses. The NSA’s bulk surveillance and efforts to weaken Internet-security standards also had support in both parties.
All those things seem to have led to a general suspicion of any government-instigated change to the Internet—even if that change is to reduce government’s role in the Internet.
And then something called “WCIT” happened. At the 12th annual World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai two Decembers ago, other countries teamed up with the International Telecommunications Union to try to place Internet governance under that United Nations body.
The U.S. and like-minded countries balked at that and finally walked out of WCIT. Friday’s announcement from the NTIA included this pointed deal-breaker: “NTIA will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”
What next, instead? That’s an outstanding question.
Who watches ICANN?
The idea is to turn supervision of ICANN over to a “multi-stakeholder process” involving the Internet community worldwide that must keep the Internet secure, stable, resilient, and open. In tech-policy circles, the phrase “multi-stakeholder process” can translate to “mañana” or “when I get around to it,” but NTIA’s current contract with ICANN runs out in September 2015.
If all goes well—seriously, don’t ask me how we get there from here—the domain-name system will look and work about as it does now, but without crucial sign-offs coming from a Washington, D.C., address.
And that alone will count for something on a symbolic level. “Other countries have never particularly liked the sense that the U.S. government had a privileged position relating to Internet governance,” wrote Wendy Seltzer, policy counsel for the World Wide Web Consortium.
Christian Dawson, chairman of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, made the same point: “All this will really mean is different oversight for the same task—oversight that better reflects the global Internet community.”
But on a philosophical level, reinforcing that the Internet functions beyond any one .gov’s control—“a step toward a world in which governments no longer assert oversight over the technology of communication,” as George Mason University Mercatus Center scholar Eli Dourado wrote Monday—would promote a longstanding libertarian aspiration.
That would be a remarkable accomplishment by this Democratic administration. Will it get any credit for that?