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US government abandons Internet oversight

It’s clearly a busy spell for anyone involved in US politics right now. That said, former 2016 Republican candidate for US President, Senator Ted Cruz, still made significant time for a hearing on the Internet and other related activities recently. Cruz was very keen to voice his concerns about a niche yet curious matter unrelated to the presidential election – the end of the US Government’s oversight of the Internet’s master directory of website addresses.

While the Internet is essentially invisible to most of its everyday users all over the world, they certainly depend on the millions of web sites and apps that rely on the underlying internet to conduct myriad social and business activities.  In this regard, the Internet has become a massive global utility that we ever increasingly depend on – like we do electricity, gas and tap water. As such, the integrity and interoperability of this global system is critical and the core internet protocols and processes need to evolve in a secure, stable and predictable fashion.

The development of internet standards and its operation is handled by global, co-ordination organisations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN’s names and numbers refer to domain names (such as .com and .info) and IP Addresses (the number that domain names map to) – and it is ICANN that is gaining independence from US government oversight.

The U.S. Government has always retained some involvement in the oversight of the core technical internet functions, ever since development of the Internet was originally funded by the U.S. Department of Defence in the 1960s. Most notably, oversight has come in the shape of a key contract with ICANN, where the U.S. Government maintained oversight of the organisation right up until 30th September 2016 when it permitted the contract to lapse.

From the moment ICANN was set up in the late 1990s, it was always envisaged that the U.S. Government would step away from its historic role. However, where the US Government’s role was perceived to be largely benign, pressure to follow through with this was limited.

Need for a change

Significant pressure began to mount around the time of the Snowden revelations and with it, potential threats to a universal internet with common global standards. So, a process was set in motion to complete the transition and set ICANN free from oversight by the US Government and instead, to become solely accountable to a global, multi-stakeholder (a combination of private sector, non-governmental and governmental organisations) community. A set of proposals were developed to achieve this following countless hours of cooperative work.

Despite ICANN’s independence coming into effect from the end of last month, there were a series of last ditch attempts to not end the U.S. Government oversight, which had been motivated by various concerns, and led most visibly by Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz raised concerns over perceived compromises to free speech protections apparently guaranteed by ongoing U.S. Government involvement. In a Senate hearing, Cruz said, “Imagine an internet run like many Middle Eastern countries that punish what they deem to be blasphemy… or imagine an internet run like China or Russia, that punish and incarcerate those that engage in political dissent.”

The reality is, for all the hullabaloo around ICANN’s independence from the U.S. Government, the impact of the change on the everyday use of the Internet should be nothing. As a critical utility, it will continue to function. However, the transition has highlighted the importance of this essentially hidden infrastructure and that the common standards and open processes surrounding its operation which we take for granted could, in principle, be undermined.

It also highlights the important and significant role that organisations such as ICANN do undertake. ICANN now needs to step into to its independent role, implement previously agreed changes to its own governance model and show that it can continue to be an effective co-ordinator of the functions it is responsible for.  In doing so, ICANN must follow through with its commitment to effectively and completely introduce competition and choice in domain names, as it is mandated to do. There are literally thousands of new domain name extensions coming on stream (brand names and generic terms alike) but businesses and consumers are not necessarily aware of the alternatives to .com.

The post-transition world is about an independent ICANN that is both fully accountable to its stakeholders and true to its mandate to properly introduce competition and choice. If ICANN performs to expectation, that will be a major achievement for the Internet and its users.

Jonathan Robinson is Executive Chairman of Afilias