Struggle for Control of the Internet: Is U.S. Government Seeking Increased Role? (3/9)     Print Email

Dramatized most recently by the liberation movements in North Africa, the importance of a free Internet has been heavily emphasized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Much less noticed, however, is a back stage drama, played out in part in a meeting in early March in Brussels, where governments, led by the U.S., sought to gain power over key technical Internet levers.

For the Internet to function as a global information system, there has to be a single point for the management of “top level domains” (TLDs) (such as .com and .org) and the coordination of Internet names with numerical internet addresses.  Since 1998, this function has been handled by a private nonprofit organization based in California — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This body, while it has its critics, has an unquestioned record of being non-political in administering this key dimension of the Internet. It is widely credited with helping protect the Internet against intervention by governments.

Washington has supported ICANN’s role for years while many other governments chaffed at this “gate-keeper” role in the Internet held by a private US-based organization.  Periodically, there have been internationally-backed efforts to transfer power away from ICANN to the International Telecommunications Union or other inter-governmental bodies. All such efforts have been opposed successfully, largely thanks to U.S. government backing for the resistance to any move away from ICANN.  Now, however, the Internet may have become too important for governments to ignore, including the U.S.

Recently, ICANN perquisites have been under attack from its historic American patron through Obama administration actions via the U.S. position on ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee (GAC) -- a group of some 40 government representatives that actively “advise” ICANN on policy issues.  As initially reported (with some inaccuracies) by the Washington Post, the Brussels meeting saw the U.S. try to force ICANN to cede veto power to governments over the creation of new Top Level Domains.   This push for a government veto was not successful, but the issue is alive – and due to be taken up again at the next ICANN meeting in San Francisco later in March.   The U.S. push for change comes via a Commerce Department entity, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is the President's principal adviser on telecommunications and information policy.

An  NTIA spokesperson confirmed to European Affairs that the U.S. seeks to give the GAC veto authority over new top-level domain names, but says that the effort is designed “to make ICANN better.”  In recent developments, the U. S. government speaking, via the NTIA, has said that ICANN needs to relinquish some powers to the GAC in order to fend off more draconian efforts to transfer Internet functionality to the ITU, or some other government consortium.  (Incidentally, ICANN’s Top Level Domain role is not the only aspect of Internet functionality that the ITU’s champions have been seeking to capture.)

This position has surface plausibility.  The idea of ITU control of the internet has been circulating among many governments for some time, but has always been resolutely resisted by the U.S.

But the U.S. also has its own agenda for control, according to Milton Mueller, a leader of the widely respected Internet Governance Project, at the University of Syracuse (where Mueller is a professor). He says that the U.S. argument – for more GAC control to avoid more ITU control -- is bogus, that in fact the U.S.  itself wants more government control,  and is confident it can dominate the process via the GAC.  In a blog post, he said:  “The  Commerce Department spinmeisters are not telling the truth when they claim that their strenuous attempts to subordinate ICANN’s nongovernmental policy-making processes are justified by some desperate attempt to stave off foreign barbarians.  NTIA is doing what it is doing because there are strong economic and political forces right here in this country who want to yank the tether.”

Mueller says that there is no serious threat of the Internet capture by the ITU or any UN entity, even if there were substantial support for such a move, because there is no plausible mechanism for making such a transfer against U.S. wishes.

ICANN has been successful so far in fending government encroachments, which many Internet experts think would be a paralyzing disaster.   “Giving 40 governments a ‘heckler’s veto’ over the Internet would create the very conditions the Internet founders sought to avoid in the first place,” says another specialist in Internet governance, who declined to be named because he is involved in relevant negotiations.  But the Commerce Department has substantial leverage because the ICANN contract to be the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) expires in September: interestingly, NTIA, for the first time, has sought comments on how the renewal should be handled, and whether there should be competitive bidding.

William Marmon is Managing Editor of European Affairs.