There’s a reason we all love to “reply” to emails we receive, while striving to avoid an inappropriate “reply all.” Internet addresses can be so messy, and even the tiniest error misdirects our communication. Soon the Internet addressing challenge will be even more difficult, as “Top Level Domains” (TLDs) mushroom from a handful of familiar ones (.com, .org, .gov, .uk) to a flock of hundreds, many written in unfamiliar alphabets.
But typographical challenges are not what’s been roiling the Internet world lately. The major excitement came a few weeks ago when the Commerce Department announced that the United States will soon relinquish its oversight of the Internet itself. L. Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, is not known for understatement, but his cry of anguish was fierce even for him: “It’s been a good month for Vladimir Putin: He got Crimea and the Internet.” The editors of the National Review described the news as a “bombshell” and then advised that Congress should force the Commerce Department “to retain its current role, over a presidential veto if need be.”
Perhaps the escalating tensions with Russia over Ukraine have made us all a bit jumpy, but there is no reason to view the contemplated Internet revisions as any threat to the interests of the U.S. or the openness or efficiency of the Internet. Far from being a bombshell, the plan announced by the Commerce Department is simply the logical continuation of a process that has been under way for a long time. Yes, the U.S. created the Internet and nurtured its growth, but the U.S. has not exercised unilateral control, or attempted to, even amid dramatic changes in the Internet and worldwide battles over the right of oppressed people to access it.
As a practical matter Internet management was spun off in 1998 to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. That’s the nonprofit organization that assures all Internet addresses are unique and coordinates the complicated technical standards needed to keep the Internet efficient, secure and reliable. ICANN carries out these vital functions under a contract with the Commerce Department that expires in 2015.
The Commerce Department has now announced that in the future ICANN will report, not to it, but to some other entity. The exact details remain to be worked out, and the Commerce Department has indicated that the transition will not take place until an appropriate institution is ready to take over. ICANN itself includes the participation of “stakeholders” from all parts of the world and segments of the Internet community, including governments.
While the structure of the new oversight body remains to be developed, governments that would like to exercise greater control over the Internet will be disappointed if they think the U.S. will agree to intergovernmental control. The Internet has grown and thrived precisely because it is not directly controlled by or dependent on the diplomatic and bureaucratic processes that so often hobble the United Nations and international bodies like it.
While critics see the coming change in formal Internet governance as a slight to U.S. pride and a wound to the nation’s power, in reality, the Internet is and long has been internationalized. If the policy preferences of the U.S. could have been imposed on ICANN, the controversial “.xxx” Top Level Domains for porn sites probably would not have been approved, and the proliferation of other TLDs would be slower because of concerns about possible copyright infringement, criminal activity and consumer fraud.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, is correct when he describes the planned change in formal governance not as a radical impairment of U.S. power, but rather as a change that will “preserve and advance the current multi-stakeholder model of global Internet governance.”
Critics of the Commerce Department plan express fear that Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and other repressive governments will be able to stifle free speech on the Internet once the U.S. is no longer empowered to protect it. There are indeed serious threats to the brave activists who use the Internet to criticize their governments, or would like to. But ICANN has not been the problem in the past, nor is it likely that the new governing body will be so in the future. ICANN’s role as an organization that focuses on technical standards and assures open access to the Internet is well established by this point, and the U.S. has made it clear it will not step aside unless it is confident the new governing body will do the same.
The Great Firewall of China and the restrictions on Internet freedom imposed in Russia, Turkey and so many other places around the world have not been put in place or facilitated by international governance of the Internet. The relatively unstructured Internet is fundamentally incompatible with the type of control that repressive governments wish to exercise, and that is why it takes such immense resources and constant effort on their part to keep their people from using the Internet to organize with each other and share information with the rest of the world.
We need to make sure that governments are not given the opportunity to control this vital international resource. But, despite what some critics have been shouting, the planned change in Internet governance is not an abdication by the United States. It is the next logical step in an internationalizing process that has been going on for decades.
John Cary Sims is a professor of law at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. He is a founding co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of National Security Law & Policy and currently serves as a senior editor. He wrote this for The Sacramento Bee.