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 220.127.116.11) 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 Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to manage domains and IP addresses. ICANN isn't controlled by Washington or any other single entity; instead, it has a board of directors chosen by its constituents, which include telecommunications companies, engineering groups and governments. Yet the fact that ICANN is a U.S. government contractor has led many observers to assume that Washington has, if not veto power, at least an unusual degree of influence over the organization.
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 Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency surveillance around the globe, some, such as Brazil, want to force websites to store all the data they collect within their borders, effectively creating local duplicates of the World Wide Web.
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 United Nations agency recently tried to impose its own version of governance on the Internet, it's not far-fetched to think that opponents of a unified, free and open Internet will see the administration's proposed retreat as an opportunity to advance.
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."
The Internet is so important to the global economy that even the United States' allies have been pressing Washington to give up control. The leaks about the NSA's activities only amplified those calls. If the rest of the world can't trust the U.S. to keep its hands off, the best hope for preserving the Internet as we know it is to make sure no governments are in charge. The administration took a step in that direction Friday, although no destination is yet in sight.