Global Internet Bodies Turn Their Backs on U.S. Oversight
At a meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, the heads of ICANN, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the World Wide Web Consortium and the Internet Society, backed by the heads of the regional registrars for global top-level domains, issued a statement calling for the “acceleration of the globalization” of the functions carried out by ICANN and IANA. The move is being seen more or less as a rejection of the current arrangement in which the day-to-day operations of the Internet’s underlying infrastructure have been supervised by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The arrangement was last extended in 2006.
In the long term, this could turn out to be kind of a big deal, and it’s taking place against the backdrop of all the revelations about spying on the Internet by the U.S. National Security Agency based on revelations of documents leaked by Edward Snowden. But there’s more to it than that. The decision a few years back to allow for the creation of an essentially unlimited pool of top-level domains has been criticized around the world as primarily benefitting businesses, most of them U.S.-based.
Writing for the Internet Governance Project, Milton Mueller, a Syracuse University professor, argued that the jarring rejection of the current scheme will likely result in a big administrative mess down the road, as the U.S. could have overseen a smoother transition to a global authority. Mueller has long argued that what’s needed in place of the current scheme is a set of international agreements governing how ICANN operates.
“We have been urging the USG to end its privileged role and complete the privatization of the DNS management for nearly ten years. The proper substitute for unilateral Commerce Department oversight, we argued, was not multilateral “political oversight” but an international agreement articulating clear rules regarding what ICANN can and cannot do, an agreement that explicitly protects freedom of expression and other individual rights and liberal Internet governance principles. We have heard every argument imaginable about why this did not have to happen: no one really cared about the governance of the DNS root; there was no better alternative; the rest of the world secretly wanted the US to do this; etc., etc. A combination of arrogance, complacency and domestic political pressure prevented any action.
“Had that advice been heeded, had the US sought to divest itself of its unilateral oversight on its own initiative, it could have exercised some control over the transition and advanced its cherished values of freedom and democracy. It could have ensured, for example, that an independent ICANN was subject to clear limits on its authority and to new forms of accountability, which it badly needs. Now the U.S. has lost the initiative, irretrievably. The future evolution of Internet name and number governance, at the very least, is no longer up to them.”
Yet for all the apparent shock at the sudden turn away from the U.S.-centric system, here’s one important thing to consider: There’s no replacement sketched out anywhere, and it will probably take a few years to get one up and running. Either way, if you’ve generally ignored the slow-moving and arcane world of Internet governance geopolitics, now would be a good time to start getting educated on how the changes might affect you and how you can be ready when they come.