Quietly, symbolically, U.S. control of the Internet through ICANN just ended

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:55 pm IST

Published - March 16, 2016 12:00 am IST

At a luxury hideaway in Morocco, two years of talks on Icann’s running of the Internet finished with a deal to put multiple global stakeholders in charge. Inside, the people who run the Internet’s naming and numbering systems have been meeting with some of the governments who would rather be doing the job themselves. Eventually, they cut a deal, and then negotiators from countries mostly in the northern hemisphere staggered blinking into the sunlight and splayed like lizards around the azure swimming pools, almost too tired to drink. Almost.

What they have agreed is a plan for Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to end direct U.S. government oversight control of administering the Internet and commit permanently to a slightly mysterious model of global “multi-stakeholderism”.

Like any settlement of a long-running conflict, the trick is to spread the unhappiness evenly and not celebrate too much, lest anyone think they’ve lost more than they’d reckoned. Though the French government was still seething over a spat about “dot champagne”, it rallied the naysayers the weekend before the official meeting started. Yet the real worry was the United States.

Larry Strickling , assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, is a man who defines jovial calm, but I pity any rug salesman who tries to get one over on him at the medina. He has steadily navigated the U.S. government towards fulfilling its original commitment to Icann’s independence almost 20 years ago, but he has a tough crowd back home. To avoid spooking Republican congressmen or presidential candidates, Icann won’t big up last week’s historic achievement. Make no mistake, though, Thursday 10 March 2016 was a bright shining day on the Internet. Internet Independence Day, no less. But why did we even need a carefully brokered deal to make managing the Internet the world’s business, and not America’s prerogative? When Icann was founded in 1998, the plan was to keep its anchoring contract with the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for a year or two, and for Icann to become independent in 2000. But in the meantime, the Internet became just too important for the U.S. to let go of the reins.

Shielded by the U.S., Icann resisted attempts by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union to take over its job. Iana (the Internet Assigned Names Authority, the part of Icann that deals with country codes, Internet numbers and protocols) went on being part of Icann, even as other countries felt sure the U.S. must be abusing its power behind the scenes. And Icann’s “multi-stakeholder model” evolved; a hodge-podge of different interests, meeting by conference call, email list and in different cities around the world to manage the domain name system.

But as the millions of dollars of business transacted over the Internet became trillions, and the first, second and then third billion people came online, it started to look a bit odd that one government had de jure control of a chunk of the Internet. And that this oversight was done via a procurement contract.

The Internet is run by an unaccountable private company. This is a problem. Even as Icann staff travelled the world saying “we’re just a technical coordination organisation,” having a California not-for-profit organisation run part of the global infrastructure no longer passed the sniff test.

Under pressure from the EU and others, Icann and the U.S. government took small steps, spelling out their relationship in a deceptively simple document, the Affirmation of Commitments, in 2009. Icann and the U.S. would probably have muddled along together for another decade, with the occasional hand-wave towards global accountability. And then Snowden happened.

In September 2013, just months after the first Snowden revelations confirmed long-suspected global Internet surveillance by the U.S., the Internet’s elders rebelled. Technical organisations around the world issued the “Montevideo Statement”. No one was more surprised than themselves when the sleeping giants of technical organisations woke up and growled that the “recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance” had undermined the trust of Internet users around the world. It was time, they said, to hurry up and “globalise the Iana”.

In a prescient flash of political brilliance, Icann’s CEO, Fadi Chehade, made a pact with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff. Still smarting over the NSA tapping her smartphone, Rousseff, announced a global meeting to decide the future of the Internet. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2016

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