Deciding Who Will Govern the Internet

In March the United States announced that it would relinquish its oversight of The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN is an enormously important organization that administers the Internet.  There is an emerging consensus that international governance of ICANN is coming but there are many unanswered questions.

What Does the Transition Entail?

The Clinton Administration created ICANN in 1998 as a non-profit organization based in California. ICANN serves many roles, but its primary responsibility is management of the Domain Name System (DNS). This includes allocation of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses globally. ICANN consists of various advisory committees and groups that work towards achieving a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance. The Internet Assigned Number Authority (IANA) is a department within ICANN that handles updating the DNS root zone file, which essentially acts as the Internet’s massive address book. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) housed within the United States Department of Commerce has oversight over ICANN and must approve all changes made to the DNS root zone file. The transition would remove these supervisory roles of the NTIA.

What Does a Multi-Stakeholder Model Look Like?

There is considerable political momentum around the world for a greater emphasis on achieving a multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. Strangely different countries and groups have very different conceptions of what a multi-stakeholder governance model would look like. At the recent Internet Governance Forum-USA (IGF-USA), a precursor to the global Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul this September, there was considerable debate over what the term “multi-stakeholder” actually meant. The Internet governance community appears to be in the throes of a power struggle for who will have the largest stake in governing the Internet, once the inevitable transition occurs.

A recent video from Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google and self-described the “Father of the Internet”, advocates for the transition from US Government oversight. This video also highlights concerns from the private sector about potentially stifling Internet regulations. The United States government also shares these views. Speaking at the IGF-USA in July, Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, was adamant that the United States was committed to an Internet free of international regulation stating:

“As such, we maintain that the Internet’s stakeholders have a proven track record to justify the continuation of an Internet governance architecture that is diffuse, inclusive of everyone, and not subject to intergovernmental control.”

Should the US Delay the Transition?

Complicating this transition is the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act. The bill would delay governance changes to ICANN and authorize a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), to help better understand the potential effects of the transition. Among those who oppose the transition some would seek a delay out of cautious pragmatism and others hope to stop it entirely. Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) recently spoke at the IGF-USA in support of the DOTCOM Bill. Rep. Walden sees the legislation as a way to ensure that the transition, which he supports, is done properly. Rep. Walden, like many other members of Congress, believes that once the United States relinquishes oversight of ICANN it will never reacquire that regulatory authority. Opponents of the DOTCOM Bill argue it is delaying the inevitable and that the timing for the transition is right considering the international uproar over US government surveillance.

The current situation is without precedent. The Internet is such a complicated and ubiquitous technology that we lack adequate historical examples to reference. The Internet governance community has developed and matured in sync with the technology itself. The eventual move to international oversight seems inevitable but the slow pace of that transition highlights the economic, political, and social importance of the Internet.

Kevin Risser contributed to this post.