Is the USA Giving Up Control of the Internet?
On March 14, 2014, the United States announced its intention to turn over control of the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) to someone else. But exactly who or what will take over? And will it make the Internet better or worse? Here is my analysis of what’s really happening…
Is the U.N. Taking Over the Internet?
Despite what you may have heard about the recently announced changes in Internet governance, it's not exactly "new news," it's not going to happen any time soon, but it could affect how people in some countries access the Internet (or not). Here's what you need to know.
The U.S. has taken the next-to-last step towards fulfilling a promise made to the world back in 1998. It has set a tentative date, in 2015, on which it hopes to relinquish its control over the Internet’s address system to a government-independent body of international stakeholders.
If no such body emerges by the deadline, the U. S. will retain what power it has until one is formed. That raises the question, “What power does the U. S. currently have?”
The U.S. can bar anyone from using the Internet, in theory. That’s because the U. S. indirectly controls two critical functions: the assignment of IP addresses and the maintenance of the highest level of the Domain Name System (DNS). Without an IP address, a computer (or any device) cannot be connected to the Internet. Without a top-level domain name (e. g., .com, .net, .uk), a connected device can only be found by its IP address.
It's the DNS system that ensures that when you click or type "google.com", your browser brings you to the search site you're expecting, and not some rogue look-alike site in Moldova. So it's important that a secure, trustworthy entity is the keeper of those keys. And it's important that the assignment of IP addresses and domain names is not a political process.
Authority over these functions currently resides in the U.S. Commerce Department. More specifically, in an agency of the Commerce Department called the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). That agency has delegated responsibility for these functions to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit, non-government entity based in Los Angeles. ICANN’s contract with the NTIA expires next year, and at that time NTIA plans to relinquish its authority over IP addresses and the DNS to another non-profit organization that has yet to be formed.
ICANN is now charged with getting that new authority formed. If a new authority acceptable to the U. S. is not formed by the time ICANN’s contract expires, ICANN’s contract will be extended and things will continue as they are for a while.
The process will be messy, noisy, and political. Ideally, the new authority will consist of stakeholders from every interest group: governments, private corporations, non-profit organizations, and end-users. One of the conditions that the U.S. has set is that the new authority cannot be controlled by any government; that’s like saying that the United Nations cannot be controlled by any government. To paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, “It depends on what your definition of ‘control’ is.”
Some Concerns About Human RIghts
What unsettles some is that Russia, China and other countries with less-than-stellar human rights policies are making the most noise about moving Internet governance out of the USA. They would like the U.N. to be in charge, giving them more power to censor online political speech and dissent. And given the U.N.'s track record of putting dictators in charge of things, one can understand these concerns. Last November, Russia, China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia were chosen by secret ballot to serve on the UN's laughable Human Rights Council.
Typically, whoever controls the purse strings controls everything. If the new Internet governance body is funded by member contributions, then power will concentrate in the factions that contribute the most money. ICANN will have to come up with a different, politically neutral funding mechanism. Selling IP addresses and domain names may be a workable option, but provisions will be needed to prevent any entity or faction from cornering the market.
The news that the U.S. is giving up control of the Internet is being painted as a reaction to current events, including the NSA’s spying activities. In reality, it’s a long-anticipated step in what has been planned for the Internet since 1998. Before NTIA and ICANN, control of the Internet was held by DARPA. In fact, at one time a single person held the power to decide who got a domain name and who didn’t. His name was Jon Postel and his power was so awesome that his nickname within the geek community was simply, “God.”
The transfer of power from a military agency to the Commerce Department, which serves broad commercial interests, was a step towards openness and inclusion of more stakeholders. Delegating power to the non-governmental ICANN was a further step. Taking the U. S. government entirely out of the picture is the final step, and it won’t be taken until another suitable custodian of the Internet is available.
Bottom line, the Internet isn't likely to fundamentally change (at least in the USA) once this transition is complete. You'll still be able to find cat videos on Youtube, and spew the most private details of your life on Facebook, if you choose to do so. Users in China, Russia, and other totalitarian regimes may not be as lucky.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
Posted by Bob Rankin on 20 Mar 2014
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