The U.S. Gives Up Its Control of the Free-Speech Internet

The U.S. is handing control of domain names over to a nonprofit

Type the domain name into a browser, and you reach servers run by Bloomberg Businessweek. This happens whether you’re sitting in Chennai, India, or Kittery, Maine—your computer has consulted a nearby copy of a single, universal list of which names get you to which servers. This largely invisible process is called the Internet’s domain name system, or DNS. It is so important that the guy who first controlled it, Jon Postel of the University of California at Los Angeles, earned the nickname “God.”

God died in 1998, and now the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers manages the domain name system. Icann is a nonprofit with a complex, international governance structure of what it calls “stakeholders,” a group that includes governments, corporations, and civil society activists. But it has operated, ultimately, under a contract from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Although it never exercised this right or even threatened to do so, the U.S. could always still render a website nameless, making it hard to find—essentially kicking it off the Internet.

The Commerce Department said on March 14 that next year it would relinquish its last bit of control over domain names. The system will be replaced by a model of global Internet governance as yet to be determined by Icann. All those stakeholders are on their own now. “The Internet technical community is strong enough to continue its role,” said Icann, “while assuming the stewardship function as it transitions from the US Government.” In protesting that it is strong enough, Icann is revealing that it may not be.

Several times in the last decade, a group of countries has urged that control of domain names be transferred to the United Nations. All you need to know about this movement is that it is led by China and Russia. In the very dull, very important meetings of the International Telecommunications Union, speeches by these countries feature the word “sovereignty.”

The only stakeholders that matter, they are saying, are countries. Right now, China can prevent users inside its borders from viewing a website that promotes Tibetan separatism. But it can’t prevent that website from registering a domain name. It would very much like to, under the argument that the site threatens China’s domestic sovereignty.

This is the advantage of the current, Jon Postel, God-like, single-domain-name system. No country (other than the U.S.) gets to decide what idea deserves a Web address, and while U.S. policies and practices in other cyber realms have been less than stellar, it has been an outstanding protector of free speech on the Internet. Power can exist even when it isn’t exercised or even visible. The Commerce Department has ensured the growth of a lively, commercial, obstreperous Internet in the same way the European Union thrived, in part, under the protective umbrella of all those American tanks waiting to roll into the Fulda Gap.

It’s a bad sign that the U.S. has chosen to give up this power. It means that the administration doesn’t feel that it can get away with holding on to it, diplomatically, which means that on this issue, we no longer enjoy the support of countries such as Germany. Perhaps it was that time we tapped Angela Merkel’s cell phone.

There will be no immediate consequences after the handover next year. Over the short-term, Web addresses will continue to go where they already go. China and Russia have too much invested in the international, commercial Internet to just go their own sovereign ways. But they have already shown their ability to shape the stakeholder process: Even with U.S. control, Icann has had to bow to some of stakeholder demands of sovereign countries. If you want a domain name in Cyrillic, for example, you have to go through one of several countries that use the Cyrillic script. Not too hard for Russia to exercise either sovereignty or diplomatic muscle to prevent Russian speakers from easily finding undesired domains.

But broadly, Icann under its Commerce Department contract did an admirable job of managing a tough, dreary task. It had to work to keep everyone using the same domain name system, which meant it could never be too aggressive with any single country in public. It was always nice to have the U.S. standing in the background as silent muscle. Now that muscle has packed up and gone home. The Internet won’t end next year. But it will start to change.


    The bottom line: The U.S. abdication of control over Icann may threaten Internet freedom in the longer term.

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