Earlier this month, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that the U.S. would relinquish its control over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers by 2015. This would effectively take the last direct control the U.S. has over the Internet and turn it over to ICANN for overseeing.
While the international community universally praised the move, critics of the Obama administration vocally opposed the transition. Senator Marco Rubio stated, "The United States must vocally and vehemently oppose any attempt to allow the Internet to fall under the control of foreign governments or international organizations like the United Nations."
Newt Gingrich tweeted after the announcement, "Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the Internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous."
Americans for Limited Government released a statement saying, "Congress needs to prevent the Obama administration from giving away U.S. control over the Internet to any international body."
With all this rhetoric concerning ICANN, it's critical to know what ICANN actually does and, more importantly, what the United States' role is when we talk about "governing the Internet."
ICANN is a not-for-profit corporation that was established in response to a proposal made by the NTIA in 1998 known as the "Green Paper." The Green Paper was drafted to improve management of Internet names and addresses.
Every computer and device connected to the Internet uses a unique address so that they can find one another in the crowd of billions of other computers. The NTIA recognized that, for the Internet to be a global network, an organization would need to be responsible for coordinating all these addresses and making sure they were assigned appropriately. This organization would also ensure that the Internet didn't evolve into a bunch of fragmented Intranets (think North Korea).
When ICANN was created, their bylaws were drafted with the global community in mind. Board members hold the final votes, but members from the smallest subgroups in ICANN can raise issues and have a voice. Various advisor committees were established that give advice to ICANN with no participation in voting. One of these committees, the Governmental Advisory Committee, comprises representatives from 111 states and other observers like CERN, INTERPOL, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization.
The U.S. government has been nothing more than a steward of these address assignments. ICANN submits their proposals to the U.S. and the U.S. approves. In the history of ICANN, the U.S. government has never blocked or changed a proposal. It is nearly automatic, and now that ICANN has matured into a diverse and globally well-represented organization, the NTIA felt that it was time to give control to ICANN fully.
This transition has been in the works since 1998 and has spanned three administrations. With the latest NSA spying revelations, the NTIA felt that this was a good time to announce the expiration of this contract to assure the international community that the Internet is a global tool meant to be shared and governed by all.
Unfortunately, this 17-year transition has become another political football to be tossed around by the media and politicians alike. Barring a collapse of ICANN, the way addresses are assigned and the Internet operates behind the scenes will remain the same.
ICANN isn't responsible for censorship or spying or propaganda. ISPs and the governments who influence them have always handled that.
The way the Internet works will not change because of this transition, but it will be threatened if the United States refuses to give up their steward role. We run the risk of splintering the Internet into pieces; the very consequence ICANN was created to prevent. Letting this transition go through will show the world that the United States is willing to be an active part of the international community rather than an isolated superpower.