Sparks fly over US plan to shift Internet role

April 6, 2014 by Rob Lever
A man checks a mobile device during the 2014 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 26, 2014

It could be a difficult breakup between the US government and the Internet.

A plan unveiled last month would see the US relinquish its key oversight role for the Internet, handing that over to "the global multistakeholder community."

US officials say the move is part of a longstanding effort to privatize the technical oversight of the Internet.

But it comes amid growing international pressure for Washington to step back from what some countries claim is a dominant role in the Internet.

Tensions have been exacerbated by the outcry over leaked documents showing the National Security Agency's vast surveillance capabilities, feeding concern that the US manipulates the Internet for its own purposes.

Some critics argue, however, that Washington is "giving away" the Internet, posing long-term threats to online freedom and commerce.

Representative Marsha Blackburn contends that the US shift "will allow countries like China and Russia, that don't place the same value in freedom of speech, to better define how the Internet looks and operates."

Some observers say the US is seeking to avoid the more extreme step of handing control over to a more politicized body, such as an arm of the United Nations.

"There have been a lot of fairly wild suggestions of how Internet governance should be changed," said US lawyer Greg Shatan.

Shatan participates in working groups of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit organization that took over some of the functions in 1997 under an agreement with the US government.

In late 2012, a group of countries voted against the United States on a telecom treaty Washington said could open the door to regulation of the Internet by the UN's International Telecommunications Union.

A 'controlled' Internet?

"A lot of these governments are not looking for a free and open Internet," Shatan told AFP. "They are looking for a moderated, controlled Internet."

But the US announcement calling for a new oversight system by September 2015, says Shatan, blunts that effort and could help bring "swing states" back in line with Washington.

File picture shows customers online at a coffee shop in downtown Hanoi

The US Commerce Department official heading the key unit in charge of the Internet, Lawrence Strickling, said at a forum Friday that Washington is handing over what is "largely a clerical task" in verifying the accuracy of the Internet's so-called root zone.

And he added that "nothing will happen unless we have a consensus" on governance that also meets the US criteria of avoiding a government-led or intergovernmental plan.

Robert McDowell, a Hudson Institute fellow and former US telecom regulator, worried the decision might create a void.

"The worst-case scenario would include foreign governments, either directly or through intergovernmental bodies, snatching the soon-to-be untethered technical functions for their own purposes," McDowell said in a blog.

Information Technology & Innovation Foundation analyst Daniel Castro says in a report that without US overnight, "ICANN would not be accountable to anyone, and would be motivated only by the interests of those individuals who control the organization."

The change sought by Washington would end the US role in what is on the surface, a dull, technical responsibility.

But these issues can become controversial, such as establishing new domains like .corruption, .amazon and the adult-oriented .xxx.

During a visit to the US capital, ICANN president and chief executive Fadi Chehade told lawmakers he saw no change in the way the Internet would operate.

"The multistakeholder community has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to govern itself" over the past 16 years, allowing the Internet to flourish, he said.

US can 'send message'

Chehade sought to debunk the idea that the US is "giving away the Internet."

"This announcement shows the world America's values," he said. "We're sending a message to the world that we trust the multistakeholder model."

A group of Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would block the US withdrawal pending an analysis on the legal authority to cede these functions.

"In the month of March alone, we've seen Russia block opposition websites, Turkey ban Twitter, China place new restrictions on online video and a top Malaysian politician pledge to censor the Internet if he's given the chance," said Representative John Shimkus, one of the measure's sponsors.

File picture shows pupils using tablets during courses in a classroom in a school in western France

"There are real authoritarian governments in the world today who have no tolerance for the free flow of information and ideas."

But Carolina Rossini of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute said the bill "could have the opposite effect" and "further empower critics who favor a governmental or intergovernmental model" for the Internet.

Some argue the US needs to make a symbolic step to reassure its diplomatic allies in light of the row created by leaked documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"We can't say we want a non-government solution and have one government controlling things," said Milton Mueller, a Syracuse University professor who heads an academic alliance called the Internet Governance Project.

The group has put forward a plan for the technical functions being ceded by Washington to be separated from the ICANN policy role as a safeguard against government interference.

Mueller said the US needed to end its role at some point, and that the Snowden revelations accelerated the process.

If Congress avoids stepping in to block the change, "I'm optimistic this global community of Internet people can work this out," he added.

Explore further: US to relinquish key oversight role for Internet (Update)

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2.8 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2014
The US is done.
Apr 06, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
5 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2014

The West will live to regret this. This is handing the Internet to Russia, China and their cronies on a plate.

Who are these "officials"?

They are not working in the US interest.

I'm just checking the date.....

It's a bit late for April Fool's

ICANN president and chief executive Fadi Chehade

Nuff said.
3.5 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2014
Control is lost only if it is given-up. Maintain control of our own machines by, FOR INSTANCE, administering domain name look-up locally and not using dynamic naming IP's. Use only trusted DNS that do not accept control messages from foreign naming authorities.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2014
The internet was designed with this degree of central authority intentionally. Without the ICANN/IANA the system breaks apart into "islands" that do not know how to connect to one another because each internet adress is just the endpoint machine number and you need some sort of central registry to know where everyone is and what the numbers mean.

In contrast, the telephone network, and earlier takes on the internet, work by describing how to get through the network. A telephone number is actually a route description and does not need any other information to get through the network. You don't need to ask anyone "where is this", because the number itself tells the telephone switches to connect along a certain route, and since the number is not assigned to you but depends on where you are in the network and how you want to get there, there's no need for a central authority to dictate who gets what numbers. Everyone can use whatever suits them.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2014
So, if the internet worked more like the telephone network, it would be much more difficult to censor and block because you would need to spend considerable effort to figure out where a packet is going to or coming from. If you can access one switch across a border, you can tell that switch to connect you to another, and another, and another, and the person who is trying to block you has to chase you all the way to see where it is going because they can't tell just from the route who's at the other end. That's why in old spy movies, they had to keep the guy on the phone speaking for long enough to backtrack the line through the telephone exchanges.
not rated yet Apr 06, 2014
One thing is sure. Free speech communication is on the auction block worldwide.
not rated yet Apr 06, 2014
One thing is sure. Free speech communication is on the auction block worldwide.
not rated yet Apr 06, 2014
IS anyone still not convinced that the Obama administration is incompetent? Our religious freedom is being squashed and we are tossing aside our hard earned technical achievements for the sake of liberalism. The democrats are a crime against America.
not rated yet Apr 07, 2014
[qOur religious freedom is being squashed and we are tossing aside

No, you are still free to be paedophiles courtesy of religious institutions. They always seem to be above the law.

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