Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the United States relinquishing control of the internet. Some are saying that the Obama Administration is handing over control of the internet to the Russians, Chinese, and a host of other oppressive regimes around the world. It could be the end of the free and open internet as we know it. But is that really the case?
It is true that the United States is currently in the process of transitioning some of the core functions of internet governance outside of the government’s purview. However, this is not the sky-is-falling situation that a lot of public rhetoric is making it out to be. Rather, the issues at play here are far more wonky and nuanced than they first appear.
Before discussing those issues, however, it’s important to understand a bit of background on what exactly is transpiring.
It may not seem like it, but this is a transition that has been almost twenty years in the making. In 1998, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) contracted with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to provide domain name system (DNS) management for the internet. Essentially, DNS is the phone book of the internet. Although NTIA has remained in a stewardship role over this process for most of the commercial internet’s life, it always intended to transfer these functions to the private sector.
In 2014, it began the final leg of that journey and in March of 2016, ICANN sent NTIA its proposal to transition the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions. Earlier this month, NTIA announced its approval of the plan.
Unfortunately, the proposal has hit a rough patch. A recently-introduced piece of legislation would prohibit NTIA from permitting the contract with IANA to lapse, unless expressly permitted by Congressional legislation. When considering major public policy changes, it is usually the case that such debates should occur amongst members of Congress. After all open, inclusive public dialogue is a pillar of vibrant democracy. This process, however, has been openly underway for nearly two decades. Now, at the eleventh hour, there is a hue and cry to halt the transition.
Despite claims by some lawmakers, continuing with the current transition timeline is not tantamount to handing over the keys of the internet to Russia and China. Quite the contrary.
As Eli Dourado of the Mercatus Center pointed out in a recent article, authoritarian regimes around the world would likely be more pleased to see this transition stall, or outright fail. Dourado observes that such an extension would give oppressive regimes “another shot at taking the issue to the [International Telecommunications Union (ITU)], this time with the added ammunition of pointing out that the United States does not keep its word regarding internet governance.”
NTIA makes the same point, arguing that “calls for replacing the multistakeholder model with a multilateral, government-run approach will only grow louder if the U.S. government fails to complete the transition.” Handing over even partial governance functions of IANA to the ITU would be the worst possible outcome of this process.
The internet has functioned remarkably well over the past quarter century because of a decentralized approach to governing the technical underpinnings. By contrast, the ITU is an intergovernmental bureaucracy that functions within the United Nations and uses a “one country, one vote” system for many of its decision. That type of governance model is especially bad for freedom of expression online.
Compare that to the volunteer-oriented technical experts who make up the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and computer security incidence response teams that help ensure the smooth operation of a global Internet. (By the way, the Internet Society, which houses the IETF, has also come out in support of sticking to the “timely transition” of IANA “to the global internet community.” Any delay, they argue, is likely to add instability to the process, thus “making the prospect of government control of the internet more likely, not less.”) A prolonged transition period could actually play into the hands of more authoritarian regimes.
There are issues that need to be resolved moving forward, such as whether ICANN will remain incorporated under California law. As the transition moves forward, these concerns will be addressed in due course. In the meantime, however, delaying transition of the IANA functions will only cause unnecessary harm. It will increase the likelihood of a renewed push for DNS management to live at the ITU, subjecting online free speech to the votes of repressive countries.
The international reputation of the United States and its standing among nations will continue to suffer, exacerbated by the damage already done by the revelation of pervasive and ongoing state-sanctioned surveillance; and faith in global interconnectivity will decline, potentially moving the world closer to a balkanized, rather than globally inclusive, internet.
We have much to lose and little, if anything, to gain by stonewalling on the IANA transition. At this point, Congress should refrain from inserting itself into this dialogue.
Op-ed by Ryan Hagemann; originally in The Hill