IN SINGAPORE next week, the United States will begin the process of giving up the last bits of formal control it has over the functioning of the Internet. What started as a small, U.S. government-sponsored computer network will become a massive web of interconnected people and devices overseen not by any government but a benign, dutiful nonprofit. Or at least that’s the positive vision. The reality is that there are dangers to the transition, and U.S. officials must be clear that they won’t relinquish their authorities until and unless it’s clear that a free, functional Internet will be the result.
It takes a lot of work to keep the Internet running properly. Among other things, someone has to manage the Internet’s “phone book,” matching Internet protocol addresses — unique numbers that identify connected devices — to the easier-to-remember names commonly used to describe Web sites and other virtual destinations. The Commerce Department oversees this work, but for years has left the details to a California based nonprofit, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), with the idea that it would turn over all control once the private entity was ready. Last week, Commerce announced that it would go through with the transition, once the global tech community figures out how to govern ICANN’s work absent U.S. oversight. Various groups will begin doing that at an international meeting in Singapore scheduled to start on Sunday.
The Commerce Department says that it won’t hand over Internet administration to a body unduly influenced by one or a combination of governments. Commerce must stick to its word, only relinquishing control to a body well-insulated from the pressures that freedom-despising regimes such as China and Russia might attempt to exert. That will not be easy: Following the Edward Snowden leaks, there is pressure on U.S. authorities to demonstrate that they aren’t trying to dominate the Internet. But it is essential. Commerce has played a benign, hands-off role in overseeing basic Internet functionality. Some countries’ leaders would abuse the Internet’s basic infrastructure to suppress rather than enlighten. Even if that were not the case, government regulators are not great innovators; they are not equipped and cannot be trusted to provide an Internet ecosystem that enables fast technological change.
Commerce must also ensure that the world’s new, independent Internet authority will not be overly influenced by the people and businesses who pay fees. Some, no doubt, would like to make it harder to figure out who owns which domain names, information that ICANN makes freely available now.
The Commerce Department’s contract with ICANN expires next year. If the nonprofit hasn’t organized itself to ensure the continued functioning of an open, free and functional Internet by then, U.S. authorities should not let global politics stop them from extending their supervision.