"I find myself in a unique point" in Internet history, says ICANN president and chief executive Fadi Chehadé. (Flickr photo of the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications via a Creative Commons license)

Onetime Bell Labs engineer Fadi Chehadé is president and chief executive of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the 16-year-old California-based nonprofit that acts as something of a switchboard operator charged with maintaining a stable global Internet.

Named to the post in the summer of 2012, Chehadé has seen his tenure marked by drama, from the impact of the Edward Snowden disclosures, to the ending of a U.S. Commerce Department contract for managing part of the Internet's naming system, to a debate over where -- at ICANN? the United Nations? somewhere else? -- decisions about the future of Internet governance should be made.

It's a heady time in Internet governance, Chehadé said in an interview Tuesday from his Los Angeles office. "I find myself in a unique point in history where either we will be able to succeed as a human race, almost, in maintaining the Internet as a platform for solidarity and for economic progress, or, frankly, we will fail," he said, "We break it down, and politicize it, and fragment it to the point where it loses the incredible value it has in bringing us together."

The Switch: We're talking on the first anniversary, to the day, of the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation, signed by global stakeholders in the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures to protest National Security Agency monitoring. What's different today than it was a year ago?

Fadi Chehadé: The global community was definitely energized by that statement to start the march toward what I would call a working ecosystem of Internet governance that is rooted in two principles: first, that we want Internet governance in a distribute, polycentric way, as opposed to a centralized, top-down way; and, secondly, we're moving Internet governance decidedly into a moment where all stakeholders are engaged.

I think a year ago we were still seething from a [United Nation's International Telecommunication Union] meeting in Dubai where it wasn't clear that we could tell those looking for solutions in Internet governance where to go to in the distributed and multistakeholder Internet governance model we believe in. People stood up and said, "Where do I solve spam?" And most of us said, "Not here!" But this wasn't sustainable. And what the Montevideo Statement did was to start coalescing the global community to start answering the question.

So, why isn't the push to give more power to the UN's International Telecommunications Union the answer?

If we move everything into one organization, suddenly it becomes highly centralized. Now, could the ITU solve a problem or a particular issue? Certainly, if the community decides it's the best place to do it. But we think that Internet governance should look like the Internet: highly distributed, highly agile and highly effective. Imagine if we had to come up with a treaty to solve spam?

We don't want one organization to broaden its remit [mission statement] and become a major central organization. We want many small organizations that address, in a very agile, effective way, the various issues -- both technical and nontechnical. Today, ICANN addresses largely technical issues. But who's addressing nontechnical issues? Where do we go to come up with a global framework for how we do [Web site] takedowns? Where do we go to come up with a global framework for how we protect children on the Internet? Where do we go to deal with issues of privacy?

What, then, is your solution?

There are three parts. First, we needed principles that deal with fundamental things: what are the core values that keep the Internet open, that maintains a basic set of human rights and respect privacy. We didn't have that. We came up with these principles in Sao Paolo [at the late April NETMundial meeting]. Okay, good, now we have that.

The next thing is coming up with a framework for coming up with solutions rapidly. That's what [Estonian] President Toomas Ilves's panel did. It worked for seven months to design such a framework, and it's a very delicate and important piece of work, because for the first time it describes what a distributed, polycentric model of Internet governance looks like.

The next step is action. The principles are the key specifications of a house. The framework is the actual architectural drawing of the house. Now we need to build it. We will be announcing that later this month: It will be called the NETMundial Initiative.

What we plan to do is to provide an online platform where people who have Internet governance issues, technical or nontechnical, can go and say: "I have this issue. Who has solved this issue?" The minister of [information and communications technology] in Rwanda told me: "Fadi, I want to come up with a policy to protect children online. Can you point me somewhere? Who's done that? Whom can I contact to tell me how it works?" The first thing this platform does is create that mapping.

The second thing it does is step in where there is no solution yet. Take Web site takedowns. Our government does it. The Russian government does it. Everybody does it. It's complicated. The president of France, two weeks ago, ordered with a decree the takedown of sites that were inciting French citizens to join ISIS. What is that process? The government issued a decree, but that decree broke legal contracts between the companies that hosted these sites and the people who run them. What if that decree was done in a country where these takedowns were against sites that promoted free expression?

None of those solutions exist today. It's completely artisanal. We're essentially going to use crowdsourcing mechanisms to coalesce people to say, "Let's come up with a process." The platform is simply going to serve as a canvas for them to do it, in accordance with our principles.

But the NETMunidial Initiative model is nonbinding. Does that satisfy someone like Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, who was so angered by the Snowden disclosures that she memorably threatened before the UN's General Assembly last September to find an alternative means "to ensure the effective protection of data that travels through the Web."

A government, like Brazil, might take one of those solutions and codify it in a binding way. But if we leave it to every government to codify their own solution, we'll end up with a fragmented Internet. Here the creation of that solution is decoupled from the implementation of that solution. People can dip into that quote-unquote solution toolbox, rather than creating it on their own.

Did the Snowden disclosures make your job easier or harder?

Both. If the Snowden revelations didn't happen, it may have been hard for me to lobby in front of Dilma Rousseff's office for three days until she saw me. I stood there in Brasília and insisted that I wanted to talk to her about this. But it helped, because the issue is already very high on her agenda...

Wait, I'm sorry. You stood outside the president of Brazil's office for three days?

I did. I insisted to see her, and she saw me. I talked to Kofi Annan after [Rousseff] made the speech at the UN. And Kofi told me, "Fadi, a lot of people identified with what she said." I went to see her to say, okay, fine. You identified that we don't have a framework for solving complex issues of privacy, surveillance. But do you really believe that the best place for that to happen is at the UN? It's important that we, in a positive and constructive way, challenge leaders around the world on how they really plan to solve the issue.

Snowden put the issue of Internet governance more prominently on agendas of global leaders. That's a good thing and a bad thing. So we used it to advance the distributed, multistakeholder model.

The bad thing that happened in my case is that a lot of people came to ICANN and said, "Stop surveillance." Well, we don't do surveillance. We just do [Internet protocol] numbers. So we've had to do a lot of work in the last year explaining who does what. But in a way, that's positive, because it put a spotlight on where there are no solutions. When I explain to people that that's all we do, the next question is, "Okay, well, who the hell does all these other things?"

Does the United States have an exceptional role in managing the Internet?

Today, they do, yes. They have the exceptional role of approving changes to the root zone [part of the Internet's fundamental Web site naming system], which we do today. That's an important role. And it's a role that was always envisaged to go away. Ira Magaziner, who designed all this in the Clinton White House, told me, "Fadi, we designed it so that in 2000, this exceptional role would be gone." He told me, "You're 14 years late, but I'm glad you're finally there."

But the other exceptional role is the U.S.'s leadership that has been central to keeping the Internet open, central to keeping the Internet accessible to the millions of people in the world who access it today. That's a role that's played in three places.

First, there's the overall leadership of the United States in international fora -- in the UN, in the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], and all the fora that have an impact on cyberspace.

Second the U.S. plays an extremely important role as a role model, as a reference point to the world. You think that how the FCC decides to move forward with net neutrality only affects America? No. The whole world is watching how this country continues to manage its Internet for the benefit of its public. That sends a powerful message to the world.

And the U.S. will continue to build coalitions to promote a version of an Internet that is open, that is diverse, that respects human rights, that enables commerce, that keeps the wheels of the digital economy greased. That's not going to go away when the U.S. passes the baton to the global community on managing the root.