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Opinion

Editorial: Cutting U.S. ties to the Net

Internet users

Patrons use the computers at an Internet cafe in New Delhi, India on Feb. 9.

(Altaf Qadri / Associated Press)

No government or interest group should control the Internet. On that point you’ll find broad agreement, particularly among the world’s democracies. The United States, however, has final say over one small but important aspect of the net: keeping track of the list of “top level domains,” such as .com and .org.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad one depends on how much you trust the United States. Congress has voted to preserve the Commerce Department’s connection to the Internet’s name-and-address system at least through Sept. 30. But ever since Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. surveillance of the net, much of the rest of the world has been trying to put the technical standards of the Internet out of any government’s reach — or to give more governments a say in the rules of the virtual road. Some countries have even threatened to create their own name-and-address systems, potentially fracturing the net and undermining its role as a free and open platform.

That’s one reason the Obama administration proposed in 2014 to cut the U.S. government’s ties to the domain name system and give complete control over those functions to the “global multi-stakeholder community” — in other words, an entity broadly representative of Internet users. It asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the independent nonprofit that now manages the domain name system for the government, to propose a way to do so.

At issue was the fate of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, which ICANN operates through a contract with the Commerce Department. The authority oversees changes to top level domains, managing a list that Internet service providers around the world rely on to route data and ensure that only one place online corresponds to each domain name. By virtue of its contract, ICANN also gets to control the supply of top level domains and set conditions on the companies that sell domain names.

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Last week, ICANN’s board approved a proposal to take over the authority, the culmination of two years of difficult negotiations among Internet service providers, businesses, public interest groups, governments and other interested parties. Although the plan would end formal U.S. oversight, it’s a thoughtful compromise that promises to do more to preserve the status quo online than the current system does. In particular, it would make ICANN more accountable to those who use the Internet, and give the net more protection against meddling by governments that don’t value the free flow of information online as much as Americans do — a freedom that has been crucial to the development of the net as a boundlessly innovative hub for information, communications and commerce around the globe.

Included in the plan are new mechanisms that could be used to remove board members who stray from the recommendations made by the policymaking panels, which are composed of technical experts, businesses, public-interest groups and Internet users. Another proposal would have ICANN’s board consider only those recommendations from a governmental advisory committee that two-thirds of the committee members supported — a requirement that should restrain repressive regimes or others threatened by an open Internet.

Republicans in Congress have opposed privatizing the numbering authority on the grounds that U.S. ownership helps protect freedom online. Setting aside the irony of conservatives arguing that the government can better protect the public interest than private industry can, the GOP overstates what the U.S. can do with its control over the numbering authority. It is not the Internet’s cop — its role is purely technical and administrative.

It’s certainly true that many countries crave more control over the Internet, as evidenced not only by China’s “great firewall,” but also Europe’s “right to be forgotten” and Brazil’s proposal to bar companies from exporting the data they collect from users there. ICANN’s plan would be a step in the opposite direction. That’s reason enough for Congress to support it.

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