Internet

Obama Administration Deserves Kudos For Surrendering Internet Control

The last step in the Internet's privatization should be applauded for removing government from the process.

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Obama on the computer
White House

Last month, the Obama Administration announced that it would relinquish the last bit of formal control the U.S. government exercises over the Internet—control over the system that maps domain names to Internet addresses. A late-Friday announcement hinted at how controversial the Administration expected the announcement to be, and they weren't wrong. The plan has been pounded by criticism for weeks, culminating in a House hearing last Wednesday at which Congress hinted it might try to block the move.

And the criticism comes from both right and left.

Some conservatives see the move as further proof of an administration all too willing to give up on American exceptionalism. Outmaneuvered in Syria and Ukraine, compromising on Iran's nuclear program, and gentle as China flexes its muscles in Asia, President Obama is now seen as giving up on the open Internet. For these conservatives, handing over control of the Internet's root zone file in order to placate post-Snowden international criticism of the U.S.'s outsized role in Internet governance fits a sorry pattern of fecklessness and surrender.

Yet it's not as if the Administration is handing over control to a UN body like the ITU, which would indeed be very bad news. (That agency is little more than a proxy for authoritarian interests.) In fact, in announcing its plan to find a new steward for the domain name system, the Commerce Department made it clear that it would "not accept a proposal that replaces the [U.S.] role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution."

The likely candidate to get full control over the domain name system is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit created by the U.S. government in 1998 that today already manages the system under contract with the U.S. Indeed, the Administration's announcement is actually the culmination of a decades-long process of privatization.

The Internet began as a Defense Department experiment, morphed into a non-commercial academic network owned by the National Science Foundation, and was eventually opened to commercial use during the Clinton years. In that process, just about every centralized Internet function was handed over to private non-profits run by stakeholders. The exception was the domain name system, over which the U.S. government retained control. And that control has been arms-length given that it contracted with ICANN to run the system.

Getting rid of the contract and handing over full control to ICANN is the last step in the Internet's privatization—something conservatives should like. Indeed, consider what would be the conservative reaction if ICANN had full control over the domain name system and the Obama Administration announced it was bringing it under U.S. control. No doubt they would scream bloody murder.

But it's not just conservatives sounding the alarm. Bill Clinton, under whose watch the Internet began to be privatized, recently remarked, "A lot of people who have been trying to take this authority away from the U.S. want to do it for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom and limiting it and having governments protect their backsides instead of empower their people."

What he's afraid of is that if the U.S. gives up its ability to veto ICANN decisions (a power it has never really exercised), then the organization will be co-opted by governments who want to control what Internet addresses can exist. And he's not wrong to be worried. In order to appease other governments in light of the U.S.'s outsized role, ICANN created a Government Advisory Council (GAC), on which the likes of Russia, China, and Iran sit. This increasingly powerful body is the source of much mischief.

An astute reader will have noticed, however, that the GAC only exists to balance out U.S. control. By giving up that control, the Obama Administration can seriously undermine the primary justification used by authoritarian regimes to agitate for control of the Internet. This is likely the Administration's long game, and they should go as far as demanding that the GAC be dissolved.

As the Mercatus Center's Eli Dourado has argued, if governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, then governments should not have any interest apart from the people's, and ICANN's multistakeholder governance model means that the people already represent themselves. So the idea of governments as stakeholders with representation at Internet governing bodies like ICANN is suspect to say the least.

Rather than panic, critics of the Obama plan to relinquish control over the domain name system should appreciate the subtle implications of completing the Internet's privatization. Congress can play a constructive role not by blocking the move, but by making sure the Administration doesn't get cold feet and actually demands less government influence over ICANN before it hands over the keys.

NEXT: When Holder Says Congress Can Reclassify Marijuana If It Wants, Is He Taking a 'Big Step' Toward Legalization?

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  1. Now privatize the fucking actual highways, and NPR.

    1. Privatizing NPR sounds a lot like chasing after an ugly chick.

  2. A lot of people who have been trying to take this authority away from the U.S. want to do it for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom and limiting it and having governments protect their backsides instead of empower their people.

    “Now, let’s go ahead and get that Clipper chip installed on your computer.”

    1. Clinton proposed the Clipper chip and all I got was a bunch of t-shirts.

  3. Looks like Feeney is getting a hard-on for True Libertarian Jeb.

    1. Does he have a hard on for Clegg and Miliband too?

  4. CORPORATIONS!!!!!!!

  5. Is there really a difference between a government agency and a government sponsored monopoly?

    1. Size of the fig leaf. Opportunities for corruption.

  6. “The Commerce Department made it clear that it would “not accept a proposal that replaces the [U.S.] role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.””

    Every time the Obama Administration says, “let me be clear” about something, I grab my wallet and double check that the Constitution still says what it always said.

    I don’t find their reassurances reassuring.

    I mean, you may be right about what’s going on, here, but why quote the effing Commerce Department? Why should anybody give the Obama Administration’s reassurances any credence whatsoever?

    1. Possibly because ICANN has been operating independently since 1998, the US government has yet to exercise veto power over any of its decisions, and the implications of finally completing this process that was scheduled to happen at the turn of the century is precisely dick. I’ve been fielding panicked emails from my parents’ right-wing activist groups for a month on this bullshit.

  7. Good spot to drop a shameless plug for namecoin. It’s a blockchain/distributed system, similar to Bitcoin in concept, except for serving as a register of names to data, distributed world-wide, and essentially un-censorable.

    So, while someone can go into Netsol’s, or Godaddy’s or ICANN’s offices and demand they remove an entry from DNS (say, wikileaks.org, for example), with namecoin there isn’t any central place to go to for that. No one can remove an entry.

    It’s certainly not in wide use at the moment, and probably isn’t quite ready for wide use, but it’s a very interesting way to make a distributed, peer-to-peer, un-censorable database.

  8. “The GAC only exists to balance out U.S. control. By giving up that control, the Obama Administration can seriously undermine the primary justification used by authoritarian regimes to agitate for control of the Internet.”

    This seems incredibly naive.

    Do you really think authoritarians wouldn’t agitate for control of the internet if the United States weren’t involved?

    I suspect authoritarian governments would agitate for control of the internet and use that control to go after their own people regardless.

    Surely, there must be some tragedy somewhere that we’re not responsible for causing.

    1. Except the GAC doesn’t have any authority beyond what ICANN chooses to allow it, and, again, the US government has yet to intercede in an ICANN decision in at least a decade. Foreign governments could agitate for control as much as they wanted, but it wouldn’t be any different than if they were “agitating for control” of the Red Cross or McDonald’s corporation – they have about the same level of influence. ICANN isn’t run by the GAC.

  9. Control of the current root servers isn’t control of the Internet. DNS just isn’t that complicated, and the infrastructure is not particularly expensive. Everybody uses ICANN, but that’s just because ICANN does a good enough job it’s not worth swapping to somebody else.

    1. Exactly, numerous zones, different root server lists, it’s very malleable. I find it hard to believe that there aren’t, already, other root systems around the world.

      1. AlterNIC was a thing for a while. And apparently there’s a handful of projects ready to take over if ICANN fails:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_DNS_root

    2. Control of the current root servers isn’t control of the Internet.

      Fucking this! And even if it were, this action (which was supposed to take place 15 years ago) doesn’t change anything about ICANN or the way it has been administering the DNS system for 16 years anyway.

  10. Barrack Hussien Obama gave the American discovery to the control of countries that not only hate freedom and America.The right to make things as difficult for the American web users! They can not pump lies and deceit on a world wide operation. The only losers in this give away is it will hurt America! But everything Obama does is to harm the nation he blames for all the evils of the world Dame him all to Hell!!

    1. ^Here is a subscriber to the newsletters I mentioned upthread.

  11. What a great article!! Now this is what I want to read every day. A news article that informs me of details and why the reporter believes as he does. The title caught my attention but the article informed me of so much more about the subject that I now agree and don’t fear that the US is making a huge mistake. i am still wary that we take actions as was noted in this article but this doesn’t appear to be another “crisis blunder” under this administration. Keep up the great and informative reporting.

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