On Friday, the United States government announced that it would give up the last vestige of control it still exerts over the Internet, and would hand over control for DNS maintenance and the assignment of new global domains to ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).
This move is surprising given that as recently as 2011, the US government had sought to increase its power over ICANN, applying for the ability to veto new gTLD domains.
At the same time, however, the scope of the power the US government currently wields has been exaggerated in some quarters by pundits who see this as tantamount to handing the Internet to Russia and China. What the US has done is give ICANN the authority to create a multi-stakeholder venture to address future questions of governance.
In the current system, ICANN works under the auspices of the Department of Commerce’s NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration). The US government doesn’t normally play a strong role in Internet governance, though it has taken action from time to time.
(Incidentally, you can click to zoom in on the above “Who Runs the Internet?” graphic).
Once the current agreement expires in 2015, ICANN will be allowed to create this new multi-stakeholder coalition out of a combination of governments and corporations. The US has stated that the new organisation will not be composed solely of governments, but that they should be treated as equal players to the eventual organisation.
There is some fair question over whether or not ICANN has the expertise to fulfil its mandate outside of any kind of oversight – in the past, its reliance on top-level domains as a source of income has led to charges that it faces a fundamental conflict of interest. Presumably the organisation may be able to revisit its own funding model as well.
Is this thanks to Snowden’s leaks?
There’s little doubt that this surprise announcement is tied to the United States’ loss of face in the wake of the Snowden leaks. At the 8th international Internet Governance Forum in Bali last fall, government surveillance was the number one topic of discussion. The countries that attended staked out one of three basic positions: The United States and other Western allies (Australia, Germany, UK, France, and others) arrived to try and do damage control, claiming they remained committed to an open and free Internet over which they continued to exert extraordinary powers of surveillance. Countries like China and Russia, with their own deeply problematic human rights abuses, took pot-shots at America – and while no one seriously believes that these nations are lining up to create a free and fair system of governance, the Snowden leaks opened the door for their attacks.
Finally, there’s a small group of nations, led by the likes of Brazil and Sweden, which have called for a robust multinational stakeholder system in which the rights of individuals to privacy are safeguarded along with state security concerns. Which of these factions is likely to win out in the future is unclear, but the Snowden leaks are widely claimed to have damaged US business interests and international standing.
It may be that the Obama Administration sees giving up nominal input and control over ICANN as essential to repairing the United States’ international reputation without fundamentally harming its ability to spy on national and international targets. It’s noteworthy that in all the disclosures to date, nothing has indicated that the NSA or CIA have relied upon a fundamental breach of ICANN or abused the United States’ Internet governance to further their own goals. Why would they? They’ve had infinitely better access through other means.
This, in other words, is almost certainly a PR move. The United States is giving up a certain degree of control, yes – but nothing critical. By flinging open the door to a multinational approach, the Obama Administration can claim to be responding to the concerns raised by other nations when in reality it’s done nothing of substance to address the genuine issues. It’s the same doublespeak approach that the NSA trots out to defend its actions, repeatedly responding to criticism by noting that its programs are “lawful and appropriate foreign intelligence operations,” without ever confronting the fact that substantial portions of the US electorate (and the citizens of other countries) fundamentally disagree with the definition of its terms.
In theory, this kind of move could help reassure nations that US corporations remain safe repositories for foreign data, but we’re not holding our breath. Google announced last week that it had begun encrypting all Chinese search traffic as part of a plan to fight censorship and human rights violations. There’s no word on whether encrypted searches are also coming to the US or UK, but after a certain smiley face led Google engineers to have a public meltdown we doubt such moves are far behind.
So long as Google and other web companies regard themselves as islands under siege, other nations are likely to do the same – regardless of any shifts in Internet governance and control.