Yes, Getting The US Government Out Of 'Managing' Internet Domain Governance Is A Good Thing
from the moving-on dept
A little over two years ago, when the Commerce Department officially announced plans to “relinquish control” over ICANN’s IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) we tried to explain why people should stop freaking out. There were a bunch of people up in arms, claiming that the US government was “giving away the internet.” That was, and still is, complete hogwash. There are two important things to understand in this. First, the Commerce Department’s “oversight” over ICANN and IANA is already basically non-existent. It was always more on paper than in reality, as the Commerce Department, rightly, took a totally hands off approach. Second, there has been a big effort by foreign governments, mainly Russia and China, to take control over the internet, and strip it from ICANN, and putting it in the ITU, a confusing mess of an organization that’s a part of the UN, but heavily controlled by governments without input from actual technologists or public interest groups.
A key part of the Commerce Department’s “transition” plan was that it would basically erase the almost entirely imaginary link between IANA and the Commerce Department, but only if a plan was created that kept IANA independent and not as a part of the UN or any organization that would lead to mostly government control, as opposed to what everyone (unfortunately) likes to call a “multistakeholder process” (which just means not just government in the room). And with that plan in place, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) has now come out in support of this plan.
The U.S. Commerce Department?s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced today that the proposal developed by the global Internet multistakeholder community meets the criteria NTIA outlined in March 2014 when it stated its intent to transition the U.S. Government?s stewardship role for the Internet domain name system (DNS) technical functions, known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions.
The announcement marks an important milestone in the U.S. Government?s effort to complete the transition of the Internet?s domain name system and ensure that the Internet remains a platform for innovation, economic growth, and free speech.
For the last 18 years, the United States has worked with businesses, technical experts, governments, and civil society groups to establish a multistakeholder, private-sector led system for the global coordination of the DNS. To accomplish this goal, in 1998, NTIA partnered with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based nonprofit, to transition technical DNS coordination and management functions to the private sector. In 2014, NTIA initiated the final step in the privatization process by asking ICANN to convene global stakeholders to develop a plan to complete the transition away from NTIA?s remaining legacy role.
Now, you would think that “small government” types would be happy about the US government completing its “privatization” of internet governance. But, that’s because many “small government” types are only small government types when it suits them. Senate Ted Cruz and Rep. Sean Duffy have rushed out a bill, called the “Protecting Internet Freedom Act” that would block the Commerce Department from completing the privatization of the internet. This is both silly and counterproductive.
The Commerce Department’s flimsy and never really used “control” over NTIA is basically meaningless yet it’s frequently used by foreign governments and the ITU/UN as a reason for taking complete control over the IANA process. And that’s only ramped up in recent years due to concerns about the NSA and surveillance. In other words, the US having any official control over internet governance is actually helping authoritarian governments by making the argument that US “control” over the internet is only helping the NSA. By separating IANA from the US government, but keeping the overall process as one that is not controlled by any government, you actually have a better chance of keeping the internet functioning in an open manner. Leaving it under the US government control, no matter how flimsy that link really is, only gives foreign governments useful fodder for a more complete move to take over control themselves.
Eli Dourado, who has spent a ton of time digging into and being involved in internet governance issues, has a great and detailed post about why this transition is a good thing and should be supported. It has all of the relevant history here (including my favorite point about how prior to ICANN, the IANA functions were controlled one dude, Jon Postel, who more or less declared himself the czar over how the domain name system was managed). But he also gets directly to the point: Congress forcing the US government to keep this “control” over IANA would do much more harm than good:
In truth, authoritarian regimes would love nothing more than to see the IANA transition fail. It would give them another shot at taking the issue to the ITU, this time with the added ammunition of pointing out that the United States does not keep its word regarding Internet governance. Oddly, this places Cruz and Duffy on the same side as Russia and China, against the world?s democracies, the Obama administration, sober Republicans, virtually every US tech company, the Internet Society, and virtually every freedom-loving intellectual or activist I have met who has participated on a US delegation to the ITU.
Separately, he also points out that for all the hype over this, the IANA function is actually not nearly as important as some make it out to be. The US government losing whatever sense of “control” it had over it is unlikely to have a huge impact on the internet itself. So the “costs” to this transition are basically nil. The cost to keeping the paper control in place, however, may be very large, in that it provides tremendous ammunition to foreign authoritarian regimes to push for much more extreme changes to internet governance that would be much, much worse.