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.