The United States is planning to give up its last remaining authority over the technical management of the Internet.
The Commerce Department announced Friday that it will give the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), an international nonprofit group, control over the database of names and addresses that allows computers around the world to connect to each other.
Administration officials say U.S. authority over the Internet address system was always intended to be temporary and that ultimate power should rest with the "global Internet community."
But some fear that the Obama administration is opening the door to an Internet takeover by Russia, China, or other countries that are eager to censor speech and limit the flow of ideas.
"If the Obama Administration gives away its oversight of the Internet, it will be gone forever," wrote Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Castro argued that the world "could be faced with a splintered Internet that would stifle innovation, commerce, and the free flow and diversity of ideas that are bedrock tenets of world's biggest economic engine."
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, called the announcement a "hostile step" against free speech.
"Giving up control of ICANN will allow countries like China and Russia that don't place the same value in freedom of speech to better define how the internet looks and operates," she said in a statement.
Critics warn that U.S. control of the domain system has been a check against the influence of authoritarian regimes over ICANN, and in turn the Internet.
But other advocacy groups, businesses, and lawmakers have praised the administration's announcement—while also saying they plan to watch the transition closely.
The Internet was invented in the United States, and the country has always had a central role in its management. But as the Internet has grown, other countries have demanded a greater voice. Edward Snowden's leaks about U.S. surveillance have only exacerbated that tension.
China, Russia, Iran, and dozens of other countries are already pushing for more control over the Internet through the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency.
The transition to full ICANN control of the Internet's address system won't happen until October 2015, and even then, there likely won't be any sudden changes. ICANN was already managing the system under a contract from the Commerce Department.
But having the ultimate authority over the domain name system was the most important leverage the United States had in debates over the operation of the Internet. It was a trump card the U.S. could play if it wanted to veto an ICANN decision or fend off an international attack on Internet freedom.
The Obama administration is keenly aware of the potential for an authoritarian regime to seize power over the Internet. ICANN will have to submit a proposal for the new management system to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department.
"I want to make clear that we will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an intergovernmental solution," Larry Strickling, the head of NTIA, said Friday.
Fadi Chehadé, the president and CEO of ICANN, said he will work with governments, businesses, and nonprofits to craft a new oversight system.
"All stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and governance of this global resource as equal partners," he said.
Verizon, AT&T, Cisco, and other business groups all issued statements applauding the administration's move. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller argued that the transition will help ensure the Internet remains free and open.
Sen. John Thune, the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, said he will watch the process carefully, but that he trusts "the innovators and entrepreneurs more than the bureaucrats—whether they're in D.C. or Brussels."
The transition will reassure the global community that the U.S. is not trying to manipulate the Internet for its own economic or strategic advantage, according to Cameron Kerry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former acting Commerce secretary.
Steve DelBianco, the executive director of NetChoice, a pro-business tech group, said the U.S. was bound to eventually give up its role overseeing Internet addresses. But he said lawmakers and the Obama administration will have to ensure that ICANN will still be held accountable before handing the group the keys to the address system in 2015.
DelBianco warned that without proper safeguards, Russian President Vladimir Putin or another authoritarian leader could pressure ICANN to shut down domains that host critical content.
"That kind of freedom of expression is something that the U.S. has carefully protected," DelBianco said in an interview. "Whatever replaces the leverage, let's design it carefully."
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This article appears in the March 18, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.