Science & Technology

Does It Actually Matter if U.S. 'Gives Up Control' of the Internet?

Worries about growing influence by oppressive countries and operational issues


The United States has announced that by 2015, it will end its control over the administration of that omnipresent series of tubes we know as the Internet.

What that fundamentally means is that the Commerce Department will end its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), turning it over to a global community of stakeholders.

What exactly does it mean and what are people saying?

The Washington Post rounded up some immediate responses to the announcement. Clearly some figures are concerned that reducing America's influence over the Internet will give countries like Russia and China potentially more power to control and censor the virtual world:

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tweeted: "What is the global internet community that Obama wants to turn the internet over to? This risks foreign dictatorships defining the internet."

People involved in web commerce are also concerned that because ICANN's revenue (the non-profit earned $68 million last year) is tied to selling domain names, the lack of oversight tied to one particular country could lead to irresponsible decisions:

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.

Tech site ExtremeTech, though, thinks the panic is a bit overblown and describes the move as a P.R. stunt, in the wake of Edward Snowden's surveillance revelations:

[T]he scope of the power the US government currently wields has been exaggerated in some quarters by pundits who see this as tantamount to handing the internet to Russia and China. What the US has done is give ICANN the authority to create a multi-stakeholder venture to address future questions of governance. Under the current system, ICANN works under the auspices of the Department of Commerce's NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration). The government doesn't normally play a strong role in internet governance, though it has taken action from time to time.

Once the current agreement expires in 2015, ICANN will be allowed to create this new multi-stakeholder coalition out of a combination of governments and corporations. The US has stated that the new organization will not be composed solely of governments, but that they should be treated as equal players to the eventual organization. There is some fair question over whether or not ICANN has the expertise to fulfill its mandate outside of any kind of oversight — in the past, its reliance on top-level domains as a source of income have led to charges that it faces a fundamental conflict of interest. Presumably the organization may be able to revisit its own funding model as well.

ExtremeTech provides this useful chart showing how the Internet actually runs (click for bigger image):