US to Relinquish Control of the Internet?

On Friday, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced it is giving up control of a system that directs Internet traffic and Web addresses. As a result, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit organization charged with managing the Internet, is tasked to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition the current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS). This announcement came as a surprise to many but a coalition of nations has been calling for the US to relinquish control of the Internet for at least the last nine months. Politically this takes the US out of the line of fire but practically what does this do for the culture of the Internet?

Why is this important to you? Because it may change the Internet as you know it….

What exactly was the US Doing?

NTIA is the Executive Branch agency that advises the President on telecommunications and information policy issues. NTIA’s programs and policymaking focus largely on expanding broadband Internet access and adoption in America. NTIA controls the DNS which essentially converts the web addresses (URLs) we type in to the search bar into the correct IP address to retrieve the website you requested. Whether you are accessing a Web site or sending e-mail, your computer uses DNS to look up the domain name you’re trying to access. This system is essential to the functionality and security of the Internet.

If not the US, then who?
This contract to control DNS has allowed the U.S. government to exert what some claim is too much influence over the Internet. technology that plays such a pivotal role in society and the economy. So if not the US, then who with the world feel comfortable wielding that power and influence?

There’s a meeting, ICANN 49, March 23 in Singapore and the future of the Internet is at the top of the agenda.

According to Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary at the Commerce Department, “[The department] will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA’s role with a government-led or intergovernmental solution.” Does that leave ICANN or a similar organization to maintain the DNS?

Why should you care?
Because this could mean a very different Internet…

While companies like Verizon applaud the moveITIF and other organizations have argued before that U.S. government oversight has played an essential role in maintaining the security, stability, and openness of the Internet and in ensuring that ICANN satisfies its responsibilities in effectively managing the Internet’s DNS. Without the U.S. government’s presence some lawmakers and members of the tech industry have expressed concern that relinquishing control of IANA will open up the Internet to threats from other governments that seek to censor it.  This could mean a very different Internet.

Are their concerns justified? No one really knows right now but what we can surmise is that the Internet is in for some changes in the years to follow the change of control. Many countries have dealt with privacy and censorship in ways different from that of the US. How will ICANN deal with these conflicting views democratically and ensure Internet users from all economies and sovereign nations will be represented and heard? Will the standards of openness and free flow of information embraced today remain the baseline? Does the “global multistakeholder community” NTIA is referring to exist? What is the legal jurisdiction for both ICANN and this new multistakeholder body?

There are no answers to these questions because so little is known about whats to come. I look forward to the information and ideas that flow from the ICANN meeting next week.  The questions need to be among those at the top of the list.

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