The Internet: Is the U.S. losing control of the Web?

According to some experts, Internet freedom is in danger. L. Gordon Crovitz in The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration announced plans to relinquish oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, an international consortium of business groups and government agencies that assigns and maintains Web addresses and domain names. But the move will invite “Russia, China, and other authoritarian governments” to “fill the power vacuum caused by America’s unilateral retreat.” Russia and China have already pushed to get rid of ICANN altogether, looking to replace it with a group that would outlaw anonymity on the Web and tax sites like Google and Facebook to “discourage global Internet companies from giving everyone equal access.”

“Hold on a minute,” said Katherine Maher in Politico.com. “No one actually ‘€˜controls’ the Internet.” ICANN’s job is to coordinate the names and numbering system used to “match human-readable domains” with their number-based Internet Protocol addresses. And while ICANN is technically based in California, the organization has offices all over the world and commercial and noncommercial members from 111 countries and international organizations. That’s why ceding U.S. control of ICANN is the right move, said Edward J. Black in HuffingtonPost.com. With each new revelation of online surveillance and censorship, it’s becoming clearer than ever that Internet freedom “faces unprecedented challenges.” By “strengthening a multi-stakeholder group like ICANN,” the Obama administration is trying to pre-empt a political standoff with other world powers over Internet access for the general public. After all, “we do not‘€”and should not‘€”try to retain or expand the role of any governments seeking to control” the Internet, including our own.

But try telling that to lawmakers, said Brian Fung in WashingtonPost.com. Politicians worry that a multi-stakeholder system “could enable foreign governments to impose regulations on the Internet.” They just don’t get that the United States’ oversight of ICANN has been mainly symbolic. In fact, it is precisely our government’s nominal position atop the addressing system that “gives Russia and China the grounds to call for a different” one. Ceding control doesn’t open the floodgates for Russia, or China, or even North Korea to “run roughshod over the Web.” Instead, it evens the playing field. And since ICANN is specifically set up to prevent “any one actor from dominating what happens,” any fears about a foreign takeover of the Web are pretty far-fetched. What’s more, ICANN so far has proved rather effective at “keeping Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes in check.”

- As seen in The Week
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