Europe wants less U.S. power over Internet


Former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden speaks during a presentation ceremony for the Sam Adams Award in Moscow on Oct. 11, 2013, in an image from video released by WikiLeaks. (AP)

The European Union’s executive body called Wednesday for new steps to dilute America’s broad influence over the architecture of the Internet, exposing a growing transatlantic rift in the aftermath of revelations about U.S. spying in the region.

In a communique presented in Brussels, the European Commission said it would seek a firm timetable to limit U.S. influence over institutions that control the nuts and bolts of the Internet and oversee tasks such as the assignment of .com and .org domain names used to access Web sites.

The commission, which effectively acts as a cabinet government of the 28 member states of the E.U., additionally said it would seek other ways to “globalize” key decisions about the expansion of the Internet that are now largely concentrated in the United States. Those include the assignment of names and numbers used to direct Web traffic around the globe.

Changes were needed, the commission said, because the world has lost confidence in U.S. stewardship of the Internet after the snooping programs revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

“Recent revelations of large-scale surveillance have called into question the stewardship of the U.S. when it comes to Internet governance,” the commission said in a statement.

The language used by the European Commission illustrates the continuing fallout of the Snowden revelations, which have deeply rattled millions of Europeans. Negative reactions have been particularly strong in Germany, where reports have emerged that U.S. intelligence eavesdropped on the phone calls of Chancellor Angela Merkel and former chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

References to the Snowden scandal in the commission statement, however, were perhaps more consequential than the contents of the policy paper itself. The commission has previously stated its desire for more international oversight of Internet governance, and it did not offer any new concrete plans for change.

Instead, it effectively called for an acceleration of a global debate that is already underway about whether the oversight of the mechanics of the Internet should remain concentrated in the United States. That issue will take center stage at a summit in April called by the Brazilian government in response to the Snowden scandal. There, observers say, the United States can expect to face the anger of governments that have been stung by the surveillance scandal and feel that the Americans have abused their role as a technological gatekeeper of the Internet.

In the communique, however, the Europeans agreed with the Americans on one of the most important points of global contention. The commission effectively dismissed calls by Russia and China that multilateral bodies such as the United Nations could take a larger role in Internet governance.

Rather, the commission specifically called for setting a timetable for more international involvement in bodies such as ICANN, the California-based institute that coordinates and oversees the assignment of domain names and operates under U.S. legal and contractual oversight.

On the surface, at least, the United States seemed unfazed.

“The U.S. government welcomes the strong and continued commitment of the European Commission to the multistakeholder model of Internet governance,” Lawrence E. Strickling, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said in a statement. “We will work with the Commission and other Internet stakeholders to make multistakeholder governance more inclusive, especially to support the engagement of countries in the developing world.”

The Defense Department originally developed the Internet, and it remains dominated by big U.S. companies, a fact that has irked the Europeans for years. The Commerce Department designates ICANN to oversee the domain registry system that keeps the Web functioning smoothly. U.S. officials have resisted calls for the United Nations to take over this oversight role.

Nigel Hickson, Europe vice president for ICANN, said the institution is moving in the direction of becoming more globalized. He said that the body opened offices in Istanbul and Singapore last year, adding that a host of new domain names coming onto the global marketplace — such as
.berlin — would be administered outside the United States.

“The thrust of the commission [paper] is welcome,” he said. He added: “These are things we were already talking about doing before the [Snowden] revelations.”

Craig Timberg in Washington and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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