As White House Abandons Internet, Bipartisan Consensus to Intervene Develops

The Obama administration has been hard at work trying to sever the last link giving the U.S. a backstop role in protecting global access to the World Wide Web. Without U.S. oversight, nations with poor citizen freedom records like Russia, China, and Iran could be more able to game (ICANN) Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number???s byzantine Internet governance processes. Fortunately, Congress is now asking the difficult questions that the Administration has been ignoring; what safeguards are needed and how can we trust ICANN to resist rogue capture?

Since the Obama Administration first announced its intent to end US oversight over ICANN, stakeholders through the Internet community have raised objections about ICANN???s management, Internet governance and many technical as well as policy issues.

The White House has put the cart ahead of the horse by pushing this transition before locking in key defenses. To protect the US and worldwide users, we must ensure that foreign governments will not exercise undue influence at ICANN, that the technical operations of the Internet will be professionally administered, and that top level domains like .mil and .gov will remain exclusively, permanently, and freely available to the US.

Recently, ICANN???s CEO Fadi Chehade – himself a lightning rod for controversy – announced that he???ll be leaving the organization. But focusing on his departure misses the point: ICANN???s governance, left as-is, opens the possibility for organizational capture by groups who want to control the Internet.

Frankly, transitioning the Internet away from U.S. stewardship was always ill-conceived. But now that the plan has been announced, we can???t easily put the toothpaste back in the tube. For years, other countries have opposed the continued U.S. role regarding the Internet. If we reverse course now, these countries will aggressively pursue two even worse outcomes: either they will use the ITU ??? an agency of the United Nations ??? to regulate the Internet, or they will destroy the global Internet and replace it with a group of incompatible, regional Internets scattered around the globe. Both options would effectively end the era of a single, global Internet, free from speech restrictions.

Now we must make the best of the situation. Fortunately, after a series of hearings on the transition, the U.S. Congress is engaged. It is increasingly clear that there is a bi-partisan consensus that the transition will require that substantial structural protections be put in place ahead of time, in order to ensure the long-term protection of US interests and the rights of billions of users across the globe.

The Congress is focusing on three key issues: Internet governance, US-operated TLD (Top Level Domain names), and professional implementation of the Internet infrastructure.

First, let???s examine Internet governance. At present, ICANN CEO Chehade says that other governments will be more than welcome on ICANN advisory panels. It is easy to imagine how such ???advisory??? panels ??? led by whichever nations prove most intimidating at any given moment ??? will succeed in bending ICANN to their will. Resolving this challenge is essential.

The multi-stakeholder community is coalescing around a set of reforms that aims to address this issue. They include a ???membership??? model that would give representatives of the community the ability to remove board members who fail to act in the community???s best interest, as well as a separation of powers between the policymaking, policy-implementation, and dispute resolution functions. Importantly, these reforms would have to be undertaken before any transition, and would be made very difficult to change afterward.

Second, consider the .mil and .gov TLDs, issued in 1985. They were among the first five TLDs that comprised all Internet addresses at its inception. The U.S. government retained control of these two domains as a legacy interest, but this never became formalized through any kind of agreement with ICANN. So long as the U.S. remained in ultimate control of the global Internet, ICANN wouldn???t dare to alter this relationship. Once the U.S. walks away from this role, however, little would stop ICANN ??? or the rogue governments who participate in its committees ??? from trying to leverage .gov and .mil by opening up for use by their governments, or terminating the domains entirely.

Countless first responders, local and federal law enforcement officers, and government employees rely on their .gov or .mil email addresses to secure our cities. Citizens rely on basic information and services provided on city and state websites. Before the transition it is critical that these TLD???s be secured both to prevent ICANN from making new demands down the road and so as to not interrupt our government???s basic functioning.

Finally, professional management of the infrastructure and implementation is a key ingredient for the successful operation of the Worldwide Web. As the FIFA scandal makes clear, non-governmental international bodies can readily be corrupted with special side deals and payments that circumvent the decision making process. Technical implementation of the web is just as important. Without guarantees embedded in the transition process, the web could crumble for many users and the associated global financial impact could be considerable.

When ICANN answered to the US, ICANN was never permitted directly manage the technical implementation of the global Internet. Instead, the Department of Commerce contracted out maintenance of the ???root zone,??? which is the official directory publishing the links between all the names and numbers of the Internet. This master file is the secret sauce that secures the interconnectivity of the global Internet.

With the Department of Commerce stepping away out of the picture, its existing contractual agreements for technical maintenance necessarily must end. However, it is crucial that the root zone maintainer remain a proven, U.S.-based company operating on U.S. soil. Think about the alternative: ICANN doesn???t have the skill or experience to oversee the technical functioning of the Internet.

Thus leaving it to ICANN to handle is clearly a non-starter. But worse would be if ICANN selected a non-American firm . Imagine if this function were handled by a foreign company answerable to Russia or China. And at present there is nothing to stop ICANN itself from relocating away from the U.S., no longer subject to U.S. law? Either way the potential for influence over the engineering functions of the web is heightened unless the company handling this function remains a US company subject to US contract law and our Constitution. Addressing this issue is critical for the resilience and stability of the World-wide Web.

Since the Obama administration first announced its intent not to renew its contract overseeing ICANN, those of us who recognize the quintessential nature of the Web have expressed grave concerns about this happening in a precipitous manner. It???s heartening that the U.S. Congress is signaling bipartisan support for putting in place key structural changes and professional implementation safeguards of the Web before any irrevocable changes can occur.