The U.S. will give away the only part of the Internet that any country owns by passing control of the domain name system to a global multi-stakeholder group in 2015, taking a step to ensure that the world’s networks remain free and open for all.
Since 1997, the Commerce Department has controlled the root server for the domain name system, a digital directory that tells your computer where to go when you type in a Web address, including “.gov” or “.edu,” giving the U.S, potential – if hazy – ownership rights to the Internet. The U.S. also created the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, in 1998 to keep the management of networks in the hands of a private sector system of committees representing multiple stakeholder including companies, academics and governments.
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The U.S. government will work with ICANN ahead of the lapse of the current contract in 2015 to ensure management of the Internet is fully privatized, said Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, in a release.
During the past decade, governments around the world have increasingly questioned whether regulations should be added to the Internet, particularly in 2013 at the International Telecommunications Union, which has traditionally regulated telephones and satellite orbits for the United Nations. Nations including Russia and China supported adding regulatory power over the Internet, but the U.S. helped gather a coalition of nations to oppose that step. The Internet worked well under the management of ICANN, developing into a marketplace for trade, innovation and ideas free of government regulations or restrictions on free speech, the U.S. and its allies stated.
Whatever the differences at home about antitrust regulation of broadband traffic via net neutrality or surveillance of networks via spy agencies, Republicans and Democrats were united in agreement that the ITU should not regulate the Internet. That’s why the NTIA “will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an intergovernmental organization solution,” said a news release from the agency.
High-profile Republicans have already taken the Obama administration to task for “giving up control of the Internet,” as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put it in a series of tweets Friday following the announcement.
The U.S. is giving away a potential global advantage by ceding these ownership rights, but it is a key moment in the evolution of Internet governance that will give strength to America’s global standing, said Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University School of Information Studies, in a statement.
“We have just made it a lot harder for opponents of a free and open Internet to pretend that what they are really against is an Internet dominated by one hegemonic state,” said Mueller, author of “Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace.”
“We have also made it harder for anyone to complain that multi-stakeholder governance is just a fig leaf for U.S. pre-eminence,” he added.
Mueller and others will propose roadmaps to fully privatize Internet governance during a meeting of ICANN on March 23 in Singapore.
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The U.S. will still have a significant edge on the global tech industry as the home of Silicon Valley companies – and to a large chunk of the data centers storing backup information for those Web giants.
Pressure from the United Nations, led by nations including Brazil and Germany, is also pushing the U.S. to step up privatization of the Internet. Both Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the U.S. following reports that the National Security Agency spied on their personal communications. Diplomats from Germany and Brazil also pushed the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee to pass a resolution called “the right to privacy in the digital age,” which does not mention the NSA or any agency but takes aim at the “negative impact” of mass surveillance.
The ICANN model keeps government representatives as equal partners with committees from other stakeholders including civil rights advocates, businesses and technicians. The future success of the Internet depends on maintaining that power sharing as the U.S. shifts domain system stewardship to the private sector, said a blog post from Len Cali, a spokesman for AT&T.
“We are not kidding ourselves about how important and challenging this task will be,” Cali said.