Maintaining this system has technically been the U.S. government's job. But for more than a decade, it has contracted with ICANN to do the work. This contractual relationship is what people are talking about when they refer to the United States' "control" of the Internet. It also helps that ICANN's international headquarters are in California.
Now the Obama administration may let that contract lapse, replacing it with a multistakeholder body composed of corporations, states, advocacy groups and other potential members. It's not yet clear what that body will look like, but this idea already has some members of Congress worried. They're concerned it means the United States is giving up its influence over the Web — even though that critique has already been debunked.
Why Republicans hate the multistakeholder idea
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) spent nearly all his allotted time Wednesday trying to get administration and ICANN officials to endorse a Government Accountability Office probe into the plan. Shimkus last week introduced the Dotcom Act, a bill attempting to block the transition over concerns that it would give "the Vladimir Putins of the world a new venue to push their anti-freedom agendas."
"We pledged to defend the Constitution and fight all enemies, foreign and domestic," Shimkus said Wednesday.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) speculated that the multistakeholder plan could let China and Russia censor not only Internet content, but even Web site addresses themselves.
"I know we're only talking about domain names," he said, "but they can say, 'This is tied to a domain name, because we're not going to issue you a domain name.'"
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), one of the Dotcom Act's cosponsors, said it would be a sham for Washington to relinquish its power over the Internet in the name of ensuring that no single country can control it.
"How can the U.S. government tell the world to accept a multistakeholder process when within our government, the Federal Communications Commission is pushing forward to implement net neutrality rules?" asked Blackburn.
And why others say they're wrong
Blackburn's question says a lot about how poorly some in Congress may grasp the issue. Blackburn says she is opposed to the multistakeholder process because she believes it could enable foreign governments to impose regulations on the Internet. She would rather retain greater American control over the Internet in order to deny other governments the opportunity to interfere. But, said ICANN chief executive Fadi Chehadé, the United States' symbolic role at the head of the addressing system is precisely what gives Russia and China the grounds to call for a different system.
"The more we exert one government's influence, the more people will want to move it elsewhere," he said.
It gets even more confusing. Blackburn has argued that the FCC's net neutrality rules put onerous limitations on Internet service providers and that it would be hypocritical of the United States to clamp down on ISPs at home while promoting the multistakeholder process abroad in the name of Internet freedom.
But the regulation from the FCC is hardly the same as the kind of foreign regulation that Blackburn argues the United States should thwart by retaining its own control over the Internet. Net neutrality is regulation, to be sure, in the sense that it comes in the form of rules written by a government that require businesses to behave in a certain way. But, unlike Russian or Chinese attempts to block content from their citizens, the core idea behind net neutrality is that nobody should be free to block anything, ever.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) called the whole argument "a hairball."
"We have a fear of moving away from U.S.-government perceived control to the control of some bad actor countries," she said. "That's a huge leapfrog when we go from NTIA [the Commerce Department agency overseeing these matters] to North Korea."
How much credit does the United States deserve?
Critics of the transition might imagine that were it not for the United States, Russia and China would run roughshod over the Web. But Washington's role in keeping those countries at bay is rather limited, officials say. It would take a great deal for Russia or China (or North Korea) to successfully seize control of the Web. Their biggest hurdle would be overcoming the multistakeholder system of decision-making that underpins ICANN, which naturally prevents any one actor from dominating what happens. The fact that ICANN is designed as a multistakeholder entity with multistakeholder processes means that the system — and not the United States — is what's been keeping Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes in check.
"No one has explained to me the mechanism by which these governments could seize control," Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Strickling said Wednesday.
Chehadé agreed. "At ICANN, it is impossible for them to do so. But it's not because the U.S. has the stewardship role," the ICANN exec told lawmakers. "It's because of the multistakeholder model. It stops them."
Even Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, thinks the worries about China and Russia taking over are needless. While those countries may have the ability to censor their own citizens, Cerf said in a Google Hangout Wednesday, they couldn't project that power overseas and decide to censor the American Internet even if the governance system allowed it, which it doesn't.
"The question is whether the multistakeholder mechanism for ensuring accountability could be somehow coerced by a country to harm everyone else," said Cerf, "and the answer is no — there isn't any way for them to do that."
So, the power over the Internet that some in Congress think the United States has to beat back authoritarian regimes doesn't actually reside in the United States at all. But that reality is being obscured by a myth: that the United States, having played a pivotal role in the Internet's creation, has a magical power to thwart speech-stifling regimes.