In the coming weeks, the organization charged with maintaining the internet’s infrastructure will unveil a plan to surrender the US government’s oversight, marking a symbolic step towards more decentralized internet control after years of international pressure.
If all goes as planned, on September 30, the US will cede its control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit charged with managing components like internet protocols and domain names. The decision has been on the horizon since ICANN was founded in the 1990s, but the scheduled transition has not been without opposition.
The US Department of Commerce announcement that it would finally change its role was initially greeted with backlash from American companies that feared it would affect ICANN’s ability to cater to US trademarks and from politicians who warned the Obama Administration was “giving up control of the internet.”
Fadi Chehadé, who has served as CEO of ICANN for the last four years and will end his term in March, told Motherboard that now, after months of deliberation, arguments, and discussion from these parties and other stakeholders, the nonprofit is ready to hand over a consensus plan to the US government. He the House and Senate, initially hesitant about the decision, have been working with ICANN, and companies like Verizon, AT&T, Google, Intel, Cisco, are now on board. Google previously expressed support of the plan put forth by the Cross Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability (CCWG) with some caveats in December but declined to comment on the current structure. Intel also offered support of the CCWG in September with some suggestions for “accountability enhancements” but has not since updated its views. Verizon, Cisco, and AT&T did not respond to request for comment.
“It takes time, and now you have more people supporting this,” Chehadé said. “It took some participation and education, and we are now in a good place. We are working with all these people constructively, because they now understand keeping this layer of the internet out of control of governments or special interests is the best thing for the internet.”
The policy will not affect the actual content of the internet, but represents a shift for the building blocks that comprise it, like domain names, which have become controversial with ICANN’s recent additions. One such domain, .sucks, was accused of being “predatory” and evaluated by the FTC, but has since been allowed, and many celebrities have been preemptively scooping up .sex and .porn domains to protect their brands. Soon decisions about addresses like these will be put in the hands of a broader range of stakeholders. Chehadé said the change was inevitable: with the vast majority of new internet users in countries like China and India, it was no longer politically feasible for the group to keep its US ties.
“The status quo was no longer sustainable,” he said. “The internet is no longer a side show. This is the digital century; it’s the next industrial revolution. The prevalence of the internet as a platform that enables the digital century made it incredibly hard for ICANN to continue doing its critical role under the control of one party, whoever that party is, whether it is a government or a company.”
This was especially clear as countries like China, Brazil, and Russia demanded control of ICANN be taken away and given to an international body like the UN, calls that grew louder in light of the NSA spying scandal. These appeals to transition power over ICANN from the US would also potentially allow other major powers like Russia and China to have more control over internet policy and could lead to censorship and fragmentation, allowing conservative countries to create their own walled-off, controlled internets.
“Countries that have failed to stifle free expression at their borders have now turned their attention to the task of gaining control of the root of the Internet itself—meaning a takeover of the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers by the Chinese, the Russians or some combination of governments unfriendly to the United States and the democratic process is a possibility that must be taken seriously,” Peter Roff wrote at US News in October.
It remains to be seen when the plan is unveiled what safeguards are in place to keep ICANN independent and the internet free, but Chehadé believes the current multi stakeholder process will prevent this scenario.
“I think if, at this layer, if the transition we are about to finish occurs we would have reduced considerably that risk,” he said. “If we don’t have this, we don’t have a global internet. It’s just that simple. We’d have multiple internets. Everything would change; the ability to share knowledge, share experiences, to remove barriers, to lower misunderstandings.”
Sally Shipman Wentworth, the vice president of global policy development at the Internet Society, one of the organizations involved in the transition, said she believes the parties to the IANA transition are close to an agreement, and that it is important the transition occurs on schedule.
“We think the community has made tremendous progress,” she said. "It's been a long and difficult process and a lot of interests to take into account, but we think we are getting close, and we need to grab consensus.”
Wentworth said it is important that governments are included in the process from the beginning, and while the decision won’t make major changes to what we see online, an independent ICANN and the process it took to get there means a lot for internet freedom.
“I think what this process should demonstrate is that a bottom-up, multistakeholder consensus process can produce outcomes that are good for the internet,” she said