Forty-seven years of U.S. government authority over the Internet’s most basic functions is slated to end Saturday, not with a celebration or a wake but with the quiet expiration of a contract.
The agreement essentially gives a California-based nonprofit group the sole authority to organize cyberspace’s address book. And though this entity, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), has played this vital role for years, the retreat of U.S. control has sparked charges that the Obama administration is abandoning the final vestiges of a crucial — if rarely exercised — oversight position.
The complaints have had a decidedly partisan cast. The campaign of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has bashed the idea. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has sought to halt the move through legislation. Four Republican state attorneys general on Friday unsuccessfully sought a restraining order from a federal judge.
“President Obama intends to give increased control of the Internet to authoritarian regimes like China, Russia, and Iran,” Cruz said in a statement this week, after he tried and failed to add legislation to a congressional funding measure. “Like Jimmy Carter gave away the Panama Canal, Obama is giving away the Internet.”
The Internet, as technical experts have pointed out, is not owned by the United States and can’t be given away. Yet the symbolism of the moment is powerful. The network began as a Pentagon program during the Cold War, just months after the first moon landing in 1969. The United States is now retreating at a time when concerns over online crime and cyberwarfare are growing, and critics worry that rival nations such as China and Russia are posing a greater online threat to American national security interests.
ICANN’s executives and board of directors, who oversee the organization day to day, will now report to what the group calls the Internet’s “stakeholder community” — a lightly defined mix of corporate interests, government officials, activists and experts spread across four international bodies.
The United States, for example, will have one seat on the 164-member Governmental Advisory Committee, theoretically equal in power to Barbados or Luxembourg.
While the Internet itself was designed to function without a central authority, ICANN has played a crucial role since its founding in 1998 at the urging of the Clinton administration, replacing a program run under the authority of the Defense Department. ICANN oversees the process of assigning domain names and the underlying Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses, allowing users and anyone on the Internet to navigate to sites such as washingtonpost.com.
The role played by the U.S. Commerce Department in recent years largely has been perfunctory, approving technical updates to the domain-name system.
The oversight exerted by the U.S. government “was more symbolic than practical,” said Christopher Mondini, an ICANN vice president. “The U.S. government and every administration since 1998 always intended for this contract to lapse.”
Yet even though the oversight activity was modest, the U.S. government asserted a degree of control simply by extending the contract to ICANN. U.S. officials had the authority, if they wanted, to rescind the contract and offer it to another group. This arrangement long has had some international critics — more than 90 percent of the world’s 3.6 billion Internet users live in other countries — but complaints sharpened in 2013, after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of U.S. spying on global Internet traffic.
Even among those who favored U.S. oversight, ICANN’s actions have sometimes sparked controversy.
The rapid expansion of what are called top-level domain names — such as .com and .org — has frustrated critics, who question decisions to designate .sex or .navy to private companies to manage.
“Somebody has to be responsible for this. This is a common space,” said Garth Bruen, a Boston-based cybersecurity expert who sits on an ICANN advisory board and is worried about the withdrawal of U.S. government authority. “There’s no checks and balances anymore. . . . Before, there was a threat of accountability.”
Supporters of ending the U.S. government’s role speak of the oversight potential of the “stakeholder community,” which while diffuse has gained more official powers in recent years in anticipation of its expanded authority over ICANN.
Though this community theoretically has the power to fire ICANN’s board of directors or revoke its authority altogether, all actions are supposed to be done by consensus.
Advocates of this approach say that the many interests will work together to keep the Internet stable and free. Most major technology and telecommunications companies have endorsed the transition. They say that fears of other nations taking control of the Internet are overblown.
“There is absolutely no way that this is going to imperil freedoms. There is absolutely no way that this is going to allow Russia or Iran or anybody to take control of the Internet. This has nothing to do with that,” said Matthew Shears, director of Global Internet Policy for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based advocacy group supported in part by the tech industry.
Yet even Shears and other supporters of this model say it is without precedent. Critics, meanwhile, say it is unworkable, potentially allowing ICANN’s own staff and corporate interests to run amok with no feasible mechanism for reigning it.
The effort by the four attorneys general — from Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma and Nevada — probably was the last stand for those resisting the relinquishing of U.S. authority. The request for a temporary restraining order, which was heard in a federal court in Galveston, Tex., Friday afternoon, alleged that the action overstepped U.S. government authority and would harm users of .gov domains, including the states that filed the lawsuit. The judge ruled against the request.
ICANN will remain subject to state law in its home of California — at least as long as the international group keeps its headquarters there.