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U.S. Giving Up Its Internet ‘Bodyguard’ Role

By Rob Atkinson March 17, 2014

This move will hamper the digital economy and reduce the power and effectiveness of the Internet as a whole.

Last Friday the U.S. government indicated it’s giving up its traditional “bodyguard” role of Internet governance.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions (what is called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA)) to the global multistakeholder community. NTIA asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal to take over the current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS). All this happened at arms-length from the U.S. government, but it still maintained oversight of the operation.

While on the surface this may seem like a simple administrative decision that gives more control over this key Internet function to more stakeholders, it could actually have far reaching negative implications for the freedom and security of the Internet.

But before we get to that, why is the U.S. giving up their historic role? According to Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence E. Strickling, “the timing is right to start the transition process, (and) we look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.”

But the timing is “right” in part because foreign nations (and ICAANN itself) understand exactly how much on the defensive the U.S. is on these kinds of technology issues. This is spurred by the political fallout from the Snowden NSA revelations (which will likely continue to damage the U.S. tech economy for years to come) even though the NSA abuses had nothing to do with IANA. They know that now is the time to push for these changes, since the U.S. negotiating position is weakened.

Now NTIA argues that all will be well because “it informed ICANN that it expects that in the development of the proposal, ICANN will work collaboratively with the directly affected parties, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the Internet Society (ISOC), the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), top level domain name operators, VeriSign, and other interested global stakeholders.” It went on to say that any transition proposal must: “Support and enhance the multi-stakeholder model; maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS, meet the needs and expectations of global customers and partners of IANA services and maintain the openness of the Internet.”

Unfortunately, these assertions, while are well intentioned, are ones that cannot be assured. Once NTIA severs its ties to IANA it will have little control over how ICANN manages its functions. And we have already seen numerous examples of the chaos and lack of respect for transparency that have arisen from international efforts to manage and regulate the Internet, most recently with the controversy over the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) treaty.

With ICANN bereft of its “bodyguard” who knows who will pressure them to violate norms of openness and freedom. Moreover, the uncertainty caused by the transfer, combined with fears over potential splintering of the Internet as individual nations attempt to exert more control, will hamper the digital economy and reduce the power and effectiveness of the Internet as a whole.

And after the U.S. gives up control, it will have no ability to stop these reverberations from occurring.

Robert Atkinson is President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.