The Internet is inching ever closer to becoming the equal, nonpartisan network it was always meant to be. And one of the top officials leading that charge is vowing not to let any single corporate or government actor derail that project — including the United States.
If he's able to follow through on that promise, it will have big implications for the Web as an open platform for communication and entrepreneurship.
To understand what's going on, let's start with Congress. A key House committee is about to vote on a bill that could put the U.S. government back on track to hand some of its power over the Internet to a neutral third party. And many Internet policy analysts say this is a good thing.
For years, the United States has nominally overseen the complex machinery that lets you reach any Web page in the world simply by typing in an Internet address. In practical terms, it's a neutral organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, that's been doing all the work behind the scenes. And the legislation, if it moves forward, would officially recognize that ICANN is in charge of this function, not Washington.
The transition would formally take the United States out of the driver's seat, even though ICANN has really been behind the wheel much of the time.
Critics of this transition fear it will create a power vacuum — one that would allow countries such as China or Russia to essentially take over the Web, or to manipulate ICANN to promote censorship or other conflicting values.
But that's a myth popularized by those who don't understand how the Internet is really governed, ICANN president Fadi Chehadé said at a Washington conference Tuesday. The United States' current role only gives its foreign rivals an excuse to clamor for their own unique powers over the Web. Reducing U.S. involvement in managing the Internet will undercut those claims.
"The world is starting to get this," said Chehadé. "They just don't want any one government or party controlling this, and I think we're almost there."
To help ward off the undue influence of any of its members, ICANN will stiffen its rules so that they "are not changed five years from now so that they become deciders," Chehadé said.
The whole point of the move, he said, is to keep ICANN a neutral player.
This cuts both ways. Just as a decentralized approach to governing the Internet might thwart actors who want to use ICANN to expand censorship and surveillance, it would also stymie others — including American groups — who might like to see ICANN do more to police national copyright laws, for instance.
ICANN isn't the venue for that, said Chehadé.
"The reality is we have to change that trend," he said. "Everyone is coming to us and saying, 'You, you should police content.' But our effort should be to … make sure everybody understands where our role starts and stops."
And that role doesn't appear to include doing governments and businesses any special favors.