U.S. government to relinquish oversight of Internet addresses

The U.S. government is going to surrender its oversight role over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) sometime in late 2015, according to an announcement on Friday evening.  ICANN is the organization that sets up Web addresses, converting those easily-remembered “dot-com” website names into the numbers used internally by Internet browsers.  Everyone agrees the end of American stewardship is historic, but opinions on the wisdom of the move, and its ramifications for Internet users, vary widely.

Today’s announcement seems to have taken the tech industry by surprise, although a formal separation between the U.S. government and ICANN has been discussed ever since the corporation’s inception in 1998.  Those who support a “global model” for ICANN say it’s a sign of the Internet’s maturity that American oversight will no longer be required.  Naturally, some other governments resent the special role played by the United States as godfather of the Internet.

Unfortunately, there are suspicions today’s announcement was motivated by America’s role as Big Brother of the Internet.  The broad-based surveillance exposed during the Edward Snowden saga generated quite a bit of anger among the international targets of digital spying.  None of the NSA’s activities had any direct relationship to the domain assignment duties of ICANN, and the Administration formally denies that the transition to global control is a consequence of the surveillance scandal, but some observers persist in thinking it’s meant as a gesture of conciliation to soothe hurt feelings and build confidence in an Internet less subject to U.S. intelligence activity.

On the other hand, business leaders both in America and aboard valued the stability American oversight brought to the Internet, and are nervous about what the new “global model” might entail.  Assurances are being given that ICANN won’t become some sort of horrid United Nations-style circus dominated by totalitarian governments; business interests and user groups are supposed to play leading roles in the new system, and promises have been made that the free and open Internet will be protected at all costs.  

The Washington Post relates a few other pointed criticisms of Friday’s announcement:

“This is a purely political bone that the U.S. is throwing,” said Garth Bruen, a security fellow at the Digital Citizens Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group that combats online crime. “ICANN has made a lot of mistakes, and ICANN has not really been a good steward.”

Business groups and some others have long complained that ICANN’s decision-making was dominated by the interests of the industry that sells domain names and whose fees provide the vast majority of ICANN’s revenue. The U.S. government contract was a modest check against such abuses, critics said.

“It’s inconceivable that ICANN can be accountable to the whole world. That’s the equivalent of being accountable to no one,” said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a trade group representing major Internet commerce businesses.

[…] Concern about ICANN’s stewardship has spiked in recent years amid a massive and controversial expansion that is adding hundreds of new domains, such as dot-book, dot-gay and dot-sucks, to the Internet’s infrastructure. More than 1,000 new domains are slated to be made available, pumping far more fee revenue into ICANN.

Major corporations have complained, however, that con artists already swarm the Internet with phony Web sites designed to look like the authentic offerings of respected brands.

“To set ICANN so-called free is a very major step that should done with careful oversight,” said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. “We would be very concerned about that step.”

There are those who question the wisdom of changing a system that has brought stability and reliability to the Internet, especially when the prospective new oversight regime doesn’t actually exist yet.  The timetable for this handover is very loose at the moment, so it’s possible negative reactions over the coming weeks might accumulate to the point that a change of plans becomes necessary, or at least the new “multi-stakeholder” system might have to be firmed up and subjected to scrutiny.  Those who applaud this decision seem convinced that the new model couldn’t possibly jeopardize the stability and accessibility of the Internet, because too many interests around the world have too much riding on it.  But nebulous global organizations have been responsible for many an unexpected disaster in the past…

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