No one owns the Internet. It’s an international network under the control of no single country or company. But actually navigating that complex network depends upon a collection of directories and standards over which the US government has long had final authority. Without this body of information, you wouldn’t be able to just type “wired.com” into your browser to visit our website.
The US government’s control over this crucial part of the Internet has never sat well with the rest of the world. And that control may soon end thanks to an agreement approved last week by governments and non-profit organizations from around the world. That is, if politics doesn’t get in the way.
Some lawmakers warn that without US control over Icann, other countries could use the organization to censor the web.
The collection of technical standards and directories of Internet addresses and domain names is called Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA. It’s long been managed by an independent non-profit organization called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, under a contract with the US Department of Commerce. If the US government approves Icann’s bid for independence, the Commerce department would cede control of IANA to the organization. “The only thing that changes is that we don’t have a contract with the US,” says Icann’s Theresa Swinehart, who is overseeing the transition. “That won’t be noticed by users.”
But the transition still makes US lawmakers very nervous, despite a number of checks and balances included in Icann’s existing bylaws and extended by the proposal. Some politicians assert that letting go of the IANA could compromise national security. And especially during an election year, those anxieties may hinder the bid to extricate the Internet from a single country’s authority.
Icann plays a critical role in how people find things on the web, and its decisions affect Internet users around the globe. For example, law enforcement agencies often seek to seize domain names that host pirated media or break local laws. Icann doesn’t handle domain seizures directly. Instead, it contracts the task of handling domain name registration to companies like Verisign and Donuts, which deal with law enforcement requests.
Some of those agreements have become effectively permanent, such as Verisign’s control over the .com and .net top-level domain names. But Icann does help set policy on how law enforcement and other requests are handled. The organization also oversees the creation of new top level domain names–such as .guru, .horse, and .xxx–and awards management contracts to registration companies that offer the new addresses.
Especially during an election year, politicians’ anxieties may hinder the bid to extricate the Internet from US authority.
The proposal to relinquish control over Icann now rests with the Commerce department, which is evaluating the text to ensure it meets a number of requirements, such as whether Icann is sufficiently independent and accountable. If everything checks out, Icann could be fully independent as soon as September, when its contract with the Department of Commerce expires. Unless Congress tries to block it.
Last year, Congress used a funding bill to delay transferring control over Icann. Last summer both houses of Congress passed bills that would give them 30 days to review the proposal, allowing skeptics more time to decide whether to hand over the reins before trying to delay the deal again.
Chief among lawmakers’ concerns is the fear that the US will lose the ability to seize domain names. They also don’t want to enable countries like China, Iran, or Russia to be able to silence critics by seizing domain names registered in other nations.
Congress’ most vocal critic of Icann independence is GOP presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz, who wants to give Congress more authority over Icann’s transition. He warns that handing off the IANA would be a big mistake.
“The likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Chinese President Xi Jinping should not dictate what can be read, written, distributed, bought and sold on the Internet,” Cruz wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post in 2014, soon after the Department of Commerce announced plans to allow Icann to operate independently. “Countries that do not give their own people the right to speak freely deserve no say in what Americans can say and do on the Internet.”
Earlier this year, Cruz and two other senators penned an open letter to Icann chairman Stephen D. Crocker alleging the organization may have a “direct operational relationship with the Chinese government.”
In theory, a system of checks and balances should keep any one organization, company, or country from dominating Icann’s decision-making process.
Among other issues, the letter cites Icann’s office of engagement in China and a memo signed in 2013 resolving to promote China’s participation in Icann as evidence of the organziation’s alignment with the Chinese government. The senators had previously raised questions about Icann CEO Fadi Chehadé’s plan to take on an unpaid role of co-chair of an advisory committee for the Chinese government’s World Internet Conference after he steps down as CEO this month. But if Chehadé or Icann rigged the independence proposal in favor of China, they didn’t do a very good job.
If the proposal is adopted by the US government, the Chinese government’s main influence would come through an existing organization that advises Icann called the Governmental Advisory Committee, or the GAC. The committee consists of representatives from every country that wants to participate, including China. Under the independence proposal, Icann’s board would have to consider any recommendation made by the committee, and would only be able to reject a recommendation if 60 percent of the board disapproves. But in order to be considered, committee members must agree on those recommendations by consensus, which would makes it hard for any one country to force a vote on a particular issue.
But what if someone were to bribe the Icann board to adopt policies that favored a particular country or company? As it stands, Icann’s board is elected by outside organizations composed of businesses, non-profits, and Internet users from around the world, says Icann’s Swinehar. This provides a layer of accountability. If the transition proposal is passed, individual board members—or even the entire board—could be replaced if a majority of member organizations agree that there’s a big enough problem. In theory, that should create a system of checks and balances that keeps any one organization, company, or country from dominating Icann’s decision-making process.
Cruz’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the new proposal.
Transferring IANA to the international community wasn’t supposed to be so difficult. The registry was originally run by the late Jon Postel of the University of California, Los Angeles. Postrel was involved with the ARPAnet, the Department of Defense research network that preceded the Internet, during its early days in 1969. He stewarded the domain name system until shortly before his death in 1998, when it was handed over to the Department of Commerce. The agency then established Icann with the intention of handing over control eventually. But politics has long delayed the transition.
It wasn’t until after the 2013 when National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the breadth of US governmental internet surveillance that Icann began working in earnest on the latest transition proposal. The Snowden revelations made world governments even more wary of the US government’s potential control over the domain name system, and Brazil even talked about breaking away from the public internet entirely.
Of course, fears of a more geographically fractured Internet have been around since long before the Snowden revelations. China has long maintained its “Great Firewall,” and Russia has increased the scope of its Internet censorship. But these firewalls have always been porous. As long as China and Russia have let some content from outside their borders to seep in, clever citizens have found ways to access banned pages as well. But if Russia, China or Brazil were to disconnect their Internet service providers from the outside world completely and replace the global internet with a localized one–or perhaps something like the defunct French Minitel network–it would become much harder for their people to access information from other countries.
That scenario wouldn’t just be bad for the citizens of those countries. China is one of the biggest markets for US tech companies, so truly walled-off China could deal a major economic blow to the US. And that’s the larger danger that Icann is trying to avoid.
“Attending conferences such as the Wuzhen World Internet Conference is just one way that ICANN does the outreach that has enabled a global shift towards preserving a globally interoperable Internet,” Chehadé wrote in a response to Cruz and company. “Contrary to what is suggested in your letter, staying away from the World Internet Conference, particularly to make a political statement on issues outside of ICANN’s mission, would not have served the global Internet community.”
The US might not like giving China a seat at the international Internet table. But the alternative could be worse.