Robert M. McDowell
Last Friday, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced it intended to start the process of severing its last tether to the non-profit organization that manages Internet domain names and addresses, such as dot com and dot org. These technical functions, that help people’s computers and mobile devices find what they seek on the Net, are administered through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
If all goes according to NTIA’s plan, the U.S. government will relinquish its contractual oversight of ICANN by September 2015. In its ideal form, this evolution could help reverse a growing tide of increased state interference into the Net’s affairs. If events don’t unfold as NTIAintends, however, Internet freedom, global prosperity and international political reform will be at risk.
Due to the complexities of the Internet ecosystem, and the manner in which it has thrived, before reacting impulsively, observers should pause and thoughtfully examine the nuances that abound in the wake of this development.
A best case scenario for the NTIA plan would have existing, non-profit, private sector Internet governance groups oversee ICANN’s management of these critical technical functions, just as they have other technical aspects of the Net for decades – with a perfect track record of success.
The worst case scenario would include foreign governments, either directly or through intergovernmental bodies, snatching the soon-to-be untethered technical functions for their own purposes. Keep in mind that Vladimir Putin plainly asserted in 2011 that his goal is to have “international control of the Internet” through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a treaty-based arm of the U.N. Given Mr. Putin’s proclivity for expansionism, especially lately, we should regard his statement as a promise he intends to keep.
This concern is more than theoretical. Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and their client states, have worked for years to absorb many aspects of Internet governance into multilateral organizations such as the ITU rather than the non-profit private sector. They succeeded in gaining a toehold in the Internet’s affairs during the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications, a treaty negotiation in Dubai. They will be back to expand the ITU’s authority further at its plenipotentiary meeting this fall, which is another treaty negotiation as well as a “constitutional convention” for the ITU.
Context is everything with this scenario. Internet freedom has been under siege for years. Authoritarian regimes resent the free flow of information an unfettered Net brings – even if increased Net-based commerce is catapulting developing world economies to new heights. The U.S. government’s role with the contract for the technical functions operated through ICANN has been used as Talking Point Number One by those who seek to expand intergovernmental organizations’ reach into the Net’s operations to counter what these regimes contend is, essentially, American domination of the Internet.
Add to the mix the recent revelations by Edward Snowden regarding the breadth of the U.S. National Security Agency’s data gathering, and pro-international regulation forces have something stronger than mere rhetoric to make their case for their proposed power grab. The timing of NTIA’s announcement, however, comes at a crucial time and has the potential to change the trajectory of the debate, with no cost to the U.S. – unless the Administration weakens its stance.
NTIA’s Friday announcement was not a complete surprise to those who follow these esoteric but important matters. Working toward removing NTIA’s formal role in this area is consistent with the arc of actions taken by the U.S. government since the 1990s when it formalized the privatization of the Internet and its governance. In short, the Net has migrated further away from government control over the past three decades. As a result, it has become the greatest deregulatory success story of all time.
For instance, in the late 1980s, only a paltry 88,000 people – mainly government users and academics – had access to the Internet. Today, due to the government taking its hands off of the Net, more than 3 billion people across the globe have Web access through mobile devices alone. Accordingly, the Net is fundamentally and rapidly improving the human condition by boosting living standards and raising political expectations as it strengthens the sovereignty of the individual. The evidence is irrefutable that both domestic and international government policies to leave the private sector alone to innovate and invest were the direct cause of this beautiful explosion of entrepreneurial brilliance.
With Friday’s announcement, NTIA is taking its last steps down a path that was paved over two decades ago: a path intended to get the government out of the Internet governance business. In that spirit,NTIA has put forth several conditions before it would allow its contract overseeing ICANN to expire in September 2015. The most important condition is that no governmental, intergovernmental or multilateral bodies would be allowed to have a role in overseeing any technical functions. Implicitly, if foreign governments or treaty-based organizations were to insert themselves into this realm, NTIA would renew its contract with ICANN in 2015, thus keeping the status quo and ending the argument for at least few more years.
To show that it is resolute, the Administration should vehemently underscore the conditionality of its plan. It cannot soften its stance on this crucial issue, event slightly. If it does, chaos will reign unlike any other time in the Internet’s history. Internet freedom and prosperity would get caught in an international regulatory death spiral.
The best case scenario would involve sticking with what has worked in the Internet space since its inception: allowing the non-profit, non-governmental, private sector, multi-stakeholder Internet governance structure to keep doing what it has been doing so well without the “help” of governments. Diverse, loosely-knit and “bottom up” run technical groups such as the Internet Architecture Board, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Society, and regional and local engineers, academics and user groups, are the best stewards of these technical functions – not anyone’s government. These private sector groups will keep the Internet governance structure dispersed and free from bottle necks to ensure that no entity can control the Net or shut it down.
Accomplishing the complex task of modernizing the multistakeholder model of Internet governance, including the administration of critical technical functions, will be difficult and risky. U.S. policy in this space should be to keep governments out of the Net’s technical affairs. But we can’t have it both ways. The Administration must not waver, even symbolically. Internet freedom and prosperity hang in the balance. To be continued …
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Seven people control the system at the heart of the web: the domain name system, or DNS.