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Earlier this year, the Obama administration asked ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to create a means of overseeing the Internet after U.S. governance is scheduled to end in another year. The administration decided not to maintain the current U.S. minimum-oversight role.
This decision led to a debate as to whether transferring control of the Internet root zone functions from the U.S. Department of Commerce to some yet-to-be-determined multi-stakeholder organization is a good thing. Especially since some governments want to undermine the permissionless, free-speech Internet built under U.S. oversight.
ICANN is a non-profit organization created to manage, according to its bylaws, “the coordination of maintenance and methodology of several databases of unique identifiers related to the namespaces of the Internet, and ensuring the network’s stable and secure operation…including policy development for internationalization of the DNS system, introduction of new generic top-level domains (TLDs), and the operation of root name servers.”
And as described in the memorandum of understanding with the U.S. government, “ICANN’s primary principles of operation have been described as helping preserve the operational stability of the Internet; to promote competition; to achieve broad representation of the global Internet community; and to develop policies appropriate to its mission through bottom-up, consensus-based processes.”
But things began changing rapidly shortly after a Commerce Department official downplayed the threat of top-down control of the Internet by authoritarian governments in the absence of U.S. oversight.
ICANN has advisory committees that advise on the needs of various stakeholders to the board. One of these is the Governmental Advisory Committee, made up of representatives of national governments from around the world. Right now all they do is offer advice; their recommendations can be ignored by a majority vote of the board.
But last month ICANN proposed changing its rules to say that government opinion must be followed unless two-thirds of the board objects. Not wasting a moment, a virtual leader of repressive authoritarian government, Iran, has proposed that government opinion be a mandate if a simple majority agrees. The Obama administration’s view is not just being ignored, but essentially mocked, as authoritarian governments move to make ICANN another puppet of government.
This is not the UN taking control of the Internet yet. There is, however, intense international pressure to have a UN-type organization take control of Internet governance, fundamentally changing ICANN into an international governmental regulatory agency. There is every reason to believe that the core ICANN functions, which the International Telecommunications Union (a small U.N. agency) is already coveting and which many countries are already lobbying to be turned over to U.N. control, will eventually be consumed. This change would end a long history of independent multi-stakeholder organizations, set up to do technical functions that are of interest to the global community, being absorbed into the U.N.
ICANN has agreed to provide a brief comment period before moving to make the change. But realistically, this fight is just beginning, and the debate will likely go on for years—an ongoing battle between those who favor freedom for individuals to direct their own destiny and those who stand against such liberty.
The U.S. will need to hang tough, stay committed to its fundamental principles, recognize real threats instead of ignoring them, and work to convince the members of the international Internet community that they must stand steadfast against a block of repressive regimes. Another option is to sacrifice the open Internet, our freedoms, and the Internet industry. A third option may prove to be the only way if the U.S. fails —disconnecting from the global Internet.
[Originally published at Institute for Policy Innovation]