Why The U.S. Is Giving Up Control Of The Internet Domain Name System

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tim Hales

U.S. officials announced plans Friday to give up its remaining regulatory control over the Internet’s address system.

By 2015, U.S. officials plan to sever ties with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization that runs the Web’s central domain name system and helps maintain organization. The AP reports that while “it’s too early to tell how future oversight will be handled, the U.S. government appears determined to hand over the reins to an entity without political entanglement.”

The announcement from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on Friday marks the final step in a plan proposed in 1997 to shift ICANN to global control.

After Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance both in the U.S. and abroad, some in the international community intensified their criticism over the U.S.’s credibility to oversee the domain system objectively. U.S. officials say they have been planning this move for years, and the government’s relationship with ICANN was designed to be temporary. Indeed, Fadi Chehadé, ICANN’s chief executive, said late last year that the Snowden affair had brought increased attention to internet governance, but “it has always been envisaged, including written into the founding agreements, that the special relationship between Icann and US government will become more global in the future, and less focused on one government. So there’s nothing new here.”

Though there’s nothing in the NSA leaks to suggest the U.S. has abused its power over the domain system, critics have used the revelations to cast suspicion on the U.S.’ oversight. “The Snowden disclosures served as a lightning rod to focus attention on this issue,” Linda DeNardis, a professor at American University who specializes in Internet governance, told CNN. The European Commission used the leaks to challenge the U.S.’ authority over domain names last month, saying in a statement that “[r]ecent revelations of large-scale surveillance have called into question the stewardship of the US when it comes to Internet Governance.”

But handing over control of the Web’s domain system may prove to be politically tricky. China and Russia, whose governments strictly censor their citizens’ Internet, could gain more influence once the U.S. cedes control. The transition to full ICANN control of the domain name system won’t happen until October 2015, and the organization will have to submit a proposal to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“I want to make clear that we will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an intergovernmental solution,” said NTIA head Larry Strickling on Friday.

The implications of a globally controlled domain system are still unclear. But for the move to be successful, ICANN and the Commerce Department have to make sure that there will be plenty of transparency for all nations with mechanisms in place to keep the Internet as open as possible.