One of the technological marvels of the Internet is that it acts as a unified system, despite the fact that it's a global collection of disparate computer and communications networks. That's thanks in part to the use of a common address book administered by a nonprofit organization created and overseen by the U.S. government. Now, the Obama administration says the time has come to remove Washington's oversight, leaving the U.S. government with no greater influence over how the Internet operates than any other country has. That's a risky step, yet one that seems unavoidable. And if the transition is handled the right way, it may actually reduce the risk that governments will impose rules that Balkanize the Net.
The federal involvement in the Web's address book, formally known as the Domain Name System, is a holdover from days when the Internet was just a federal research project. Although independent engineering groups came up with the standards that enable networks to interconnect and data to be shared, federal contractors were in charge of maintaining the list of the names (such as latimes.com) and corresponding Internet Protocol addresses (such as 184.108.40.206) of all the computers that connected online. That system, shared by users around the world, functions as a road map that guides email, Web browsers and other Internet traffic to the right destination.
In 1998, however, the federal government started shifting oversight of the Domain Name System to the private sector, contracting with the newly created
That matters because some foreign governments want a very different Internet from the free, open and global one we have today. Some, such as China, long to (and, to some extent, do) censor the traffic coming in and out of their countries. And in the wake of
So when the administration announced Friday that it planned to finish privatizing the management of Internet names and addresses, some proponents of Internet freedom were outraged. Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the administration was "giving up its traditional 'bodyguard' role of Internet governance." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned that the move "risks foreign dictatorships defining the Internet."
Those concerns would be more realistic if the U.S. could dictate ICANN's every move, but it can't. Still, the federal government's involvement has protected ICANN from being subjected to some other government or governments' rule. And given that a
To its credit, the administration placed some important conditions on its withdrawal. It plans to cede the authority it exerts now to "the global multistakeholder community" — in other words, the academics, engineers, businesses, consumers and governments that have a stake in the Internet — when its current deal with ICANN expires in September 2015. And while it handed ICANN the job of coming up with a replacement for the current system, it said it will not accept "a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution."