When U.S. Steps Back, Will Russia and China Control the Internet?

Some fear foreign powers will fill the void.

Scientists walk inside the main room of the CERN's LHC Computing Grid computer on its inauguration day, on October 3, 2008 in Geneva. The Worldwide LHC Computing Grid combines the power of more than 140 computer centres in 33 countries that can process more than 15 million Gigabytes of data every year produced from the hundreds of millions of subatomic collisions expected inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) every second.  AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Brendan Sasso
March 17, 2014, 11:33 a.m.

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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