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A Better Plan for Internet Governance

By Richard Harrison and Liam Bobyak
U.S. News & World Report
September 29, 2016


The problem with high technology is that it can be difficult to understand, leading to what are often confused policy prescriptions. A perfect example is the proposed upcoming transition of the internet-naming function from U.S. to private control - an event that's scheduled to take place just a few days from now, on Sept. 30. While the transition itself isn't necessarily a bad idea, the Obama administration's current plan has definite flaws. 

Let's start with the basics. Every website (for example, www.whitehouse.gov) has a corresponding numerical address on the internet known as an Internet Protocol or IP address (i.e., 23.64.28.213), similar to how the actual White House has a real address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The organization that connects the website name with the corresponding IP address is called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. This independent nonprofit essentially maintains the internet address book, also known as the domain name system, or DNS. 

As of today, the U.S. manages ICANN under a contract with the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. But that contract is set to expire this week, and the new plan is for ICANN to independently control the internet address book without U.S. government oversight. The move to shift a portion of internet governance away from the U.S. is welcomed by many, particularly foreign states, but has been contested by a range of U.S. politicians, including several Republican senators and former President Bill Clinton. Though not always well articulated, both sides offer compelling arguments. 

Proponents of the measure argue that the internet is successful when there is a free flow of information and a global consensus on protocols that are neither interrupted nor manipulated by any government. According to ICANN, a complete transition would help alleviate pressure from the international community to be part of a UN-associated body called the International Telecommunications Union, or ITU, that would then be subject to inter-governmental control and supervision - a situation the U.S. is attempting to avoid at all costs. 

ICANN has argued that oversight by the ITU has been supported by repressive regimes such as Russia, China and Iran, which not only resent U.S. control of important aspects of the internet but may actually attempt to use the ITU to influence the domain name directory, allowing them to more firmly control the flow of information to their respective countries. The transition to an independent ICANN, proponents say, would skirt this scenario. 

Additionally, if the U.S. government doesn't follow through on the transition, ICANN has argued the internet could fragment, leading to the creation of multiple regulatory bodies and isolated bubbles of web space – a situation that would negatively impact global commerce and restrict the free flow of information. 

Advocates also believe the transition would effectively put control over the internet into the hands of those who utilize it the most, or its "stakeholders." These include major firms with internet presence as well as related advocacy groups that theoretically will represent not only their own interests but those of billions of individual users around the world. 

But the proposed move has generated significant concern as well. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, for one, has come under fire from various quarters (including from one of the creators of the internet) for strongly advocating that the U.S. resist relinquishing control of ICANN, but his arguments are not unfounded. 

First, in this new structure governments will have an increased role influencing ICANN, because the Governmental Advisory Committee, or GAC - composed of 170+ national governments and distinct economies - will be able to provide a recommendation to the organization's board that must be accepted unless 60 percent of the board rejects it. Moreover, the current composition of the ICANN board will not necessarily be the same in the future; down the road, many board members may not be as sympathetic to the free flow of information online. 

Additionally, while it is true ICANN has not played a direct censorship role in other countries, there is the potential for future problems. Currently, a number of countries - including Russia and China - have the power to restrict access to specific websites within their territorial borders, but cannot do so globally. But what if these authoritarian regimes, via their positions on the GAC, gained a consensus and proposed to the ICANN board that no explicitly anti-government website domain name (for example, www.stopthePRC.com) can be created because it could have domestic security implications? The special advisory power of the GAC states that even overruled proposals must "attempt to reach a mutually acceptable solution," so a watered-down version of any censorship initiative could still be enacted after initial rejection by the board. 

Similarly, what if the Chinese government had the power to pressure ICANN board members to edit the internet address book and remove a website that might be troublesome for its leadership? That sort of broad and egregious censorship cannot occur under U.S. stewardship today. 

Second, although difficult to accomplish, after the transition it is possible for ICANN's bylaws to be changed, which would allow anything from a change in location to a change in functioning - and the U.S. would no longer have any regulatory power to prevent it. Additionally, if ICANN moved to Switzerland, as has been proposed, it would no longer be a California corporation and might fall outside the jurisdiction of impartial American courts. 

Third, the U.S. administers top-level domains (.mil and .gov), which are critical to government functioning. When the transition takes place, all that guarantees the exclusive use of these domains in perpetuity by the U.S. government are two letters between NTIA and ICANN, which have no legal standing. There is, in other words, nothing more than a digital handshake and a wink protecting these essential U.S. government domains. 

At the end of the day, a future where the internet address book is not controlled by the U.S. or any other government is not necessarily a terrible outcome. However, the transition as it is currently planned could negatively impact both the U.S. and the openness of the internet. As such, it may be beneficial to delay the shift until proper protections are put in place. On a decision of this magnitude, it's decidedly better to do it right the first time around. 

Richard Harrison is the director of defense technology programs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. and co-editor of “Cyber Insecurity: Navigating the Perils of the Next Information Age” (forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield). Liam Bobyak is a researcher at American Foreign Policy Council.


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Related Categories: Information and Cyberwarfare; Defense Technology Program

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