A new proposal has been handed to the US government for approval which would see their oversight of the Internet come to an end.
Earlier this month ICANN (the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – the organisation responsible for running the internet’s naming and numbering system) and members of various governments who think the job shouldn’t fall to one country alone met to discuss the future of internet oversight.
When ICANN was founded in 1998, the original intention was to maintain its initial anchoring contract with the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for a year, perhaps two, and for ICANN to become fully independent of the US in 2000. As the internet grew, both in size and importance, however, it became simply too important for the US to relinquish the reins.
Over time, ICANN resisted attempts by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union to dilute its power and assume its responsibilities, and the IANA (the Internet Assigned Names Authority, the part of ICANN which deals with country codes, internet numbers and protocols) continued to be an integral part of ICANN, despite the suspicions of other countries that the US must be abusing this power behind the scenes. The ‘multi-stakeholder’ model of the ICANN evolved to become a conglomeration of different interests scattered amongst different cities across the world.
As the value of the business transacted over the internet became millions, and then trillions, and the first, second and then third billion people connected, questions began to rise once again: why does one government have de facto control over a large portion of the internet?
In 2009, ICANN attempted to mollify the international community by releasing a document entitled ‘Affirmation of Commitments’, in which they outlined the ways in which they would maintain neutrality and prevent preferential treatment in their handling of their responsibilities, and the furore died down for a short while.
Then, in 2013, Edward Snowden hit the scene. The documents he leaked confirmed the long-suspected global internet surveillance by the US, and the denizens of the internet were less than happy. The leaders of the organisations responsible for the global coordination of the Internet technical infrastructure met in Montevideo, Uruguay, to discuss the future of the Internet, and subsequently released the Montevideo Statement (Oct 2013). This statement notarised the leaders’ discussion of the need to globalise ICANN and IANA functions, in pursuit of ‘an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing’.
Shortly afterward, following a discussion with ICANN’s CEO, Fadi Chehade, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff - who had been spied on by the NSA, as Snowden’s leaks revealed - announced a global meeting to decide the future of the internet. Just weeks before this meeting was scheduled to take place, however, the US attempted to re-attain their leading position on the subject, announcing that they were ready to discuss the evolution of ICANN/IANA – with a few conditions, of course.
The new oversight model needed to be multi-stakeholder, and could not be run by governments. It needed to be ‘developed by the world’s internet community’, and it was the US government that they claimed was in the best position to decide whether a new model passed the test.
Almost two years later, including one contract extension, some 32,000 emails and roughly 600 meetings, a new proposal is ready and approved by ICANN, and has this month been submitted to the US government for approval. The new plan consists of two major parts: the first aims to transition stewardship of IANA out of US control to ‘the global multi-stakeholder community’, while keeping it within ICANN, while the other looks to provide a necessary boost to ICANN’s accountability mechanisms.
The plan will now undergo an internal review process by the US government, which is expected to last about three months, and, hopefully, receive final approval. The proposal “meets the needs of the Internet and its users,” said Alissa Cooper, who chaired one of the groups involved in putting the plan together.
So what’s changing?
The changes won’t affect how everyday users access the internet and interact online, but will hand over the technical supervision of the online address system to ICANN itself, with a series of rigorous checks and balances to prevent any single entity exerting control over the Internet, according to officials involved in putting together the new system.
Currently, the system, while managed by ICANN, is overseen by the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the new plan will see control move away from the US body and be distributed amongst a more international community.
One of the longest running fears regarding a restructuring of the oversight of the Internet has been that once the US hands off control, other nations – particularly those with a poor track record on Internet and speech freedom – might gain leverage over the running of the Internet. This fear, however, is apparently accounted for and should be allayed by the system of checks and balances proposed in the new plan.
ICANN officials hope to see the new governance model instil confidence around the world in the independence of the Internet.
“This plan enjoys the broadest possible support from this very diverse community and I’m confident it will meet NTIA’s criteria,” said Thomas Rickert, of the Cross Community Working Group (CCWG) on Enhancing ICANN Accountability.
Our ICT team leader Alex Froude feels that "fundamentally this is a step in the right direction to have an independent body making these decisions, however I'm always a little concerned where changes such as these may allow those with vested interests to skew the outcome and use such alterations for their own gain. I can also imagine that the implementation of any changes could lead to a lot of legislative and compliance changes, which could cause much confusion in the short term."
Plan to Transition Stewardship of Internet Functions Sent to the US Government
CCWG on Enhancing ICANN Accountability
"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" of the proposed ICANN/IANA reforms from internetgovernance.org
Interview with Fadi Chehade, CEO of ICANN by NPR
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