House Republicans are out to stop the Obama Administration from losing another battle with China and Russia. But this time the fight isn’t over land. It’s over cyberspace.
As the Republicans tell it, the U.S. is about to relinquish control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. If you’re a techie—and maybe even if you’re not—then you know why ICANN is important. It’s the non-profit organization that doles out website names and, more generally, maintains the stability of the Internet. Under an agreement that’s been in the works for nearly ten years, and whose lineage traces back farther than that, the U.S. will cede some of its current oversight role.
That was the plan, anyway. Now Republicans are trying to stop that transition, or at least slow it down, by passing a bill that would require the General Accounting Office to study the effects. “It is imperative that this administration report to Congress before they take any steps that would compromise or turn over any control of the Internet,” says Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who is one of the bill’s cosponsors. “We cannot let the Internet turn into another Russian landgrab.”
It’s a great talking point. But as policy? The Republican position doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and might actually do real harm to freedom on the Internet. Here's why:
1. The U.S. doesn’t really have “control of the Internet” now. The key thing to understand is that ICANN isn’t really under any country’s control right now. It manages itself and makes its own decisions.
It’s true that ICANN has a special relationship with the U.S. And there’s a good reason for that. It was the U.S. Department of Commerce, back in 1998, that initiated the formation of an international organization to govern the web—i.e., ICANN exists in part because the U.S. helped set it up.
But that doesn’t mean the U.S. has special power over ICANN. It simply means that the U.S. Department of Commerce, through an agency called the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, handles some of ICANN’s clerical work—in particular, overseeing assignment of IP addresses and domain names. (For non-techies, that’s the “blank-dot-com” address you put in the window of your browser—like “www.newrepublic.com.”) And it’s this clerical role that the U.S. would eventually relinquish, assuming the plan goes forward.
2. By design, no one country can dominate ICANN. ICANN does have an advisory committee with representatives from 133 different countries. But it, too, has very little power.
At any one time, only one of the 133 countries has a seat on the ICAN board. The position rotates (right now Canada has it) and it’s a non-voting position. The advisory committee can make recommendations to the ICANN board—about, for example, how to regulate country codes or how to mitigate security threats like phishing and malware. But it can do so only if all 133 countries agree.
"To get 133 countries to build consensus, is not easy—and that’s a good thing,” said U.S. Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda. “Governments can no more take over ICANN than Google can take over ICANN.” And in any case, ICANN is incorporated as a California non-profit, and must abide by California law.
3. To the extent anything is changing, it won’t happen for quite a while. The plan to hand off those clerical duties went into effect in 2006, during the Bush Administration. The idea is that an array of interested parties—non-profit organizations, businesses, academics, technical experts, and so on—will take more responsibility for watching over what ICANN does. The theory behind this transition is that the Internet will be more secure, free, and accessible if no one government has control over it.
But it’s not going to happen tomorrow—or anytime soon. Nothing has really changed, except that now ICANN has asked experts and advocates from around the world for recommendations on how to manage this transition and what the final arrangement should look like. At least for the moment, “nothing’s changed – it’ll be status quo as this process moves forward,” says Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the federal agency that deals with ICANN. “It’s not as if we’re closing up shop and saying ‘we’re done here.’”
4. Trying to stop this transition might weaken ICANN, potentially giving repressive countries like China and other repressive countries more power over the internet. The U.S., to its credit, has historically stood up for the idea that the internet should be open and free. But, as Stacie Pettijohn points out in Foreign Affairs, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and other countries that like to control their citizens' access to information have been pushing to hand over more control to other international bodies, particularly the United Nations—where those nations could exert relatively more control over how the internet works.
Those countries have cited U.S. oversight of ICANN, meaningless though it is, as reason to weaken the agency. The best way to prevent that from happening would be to make ICANN as independent as possible, so that it's a bulwark against efforts at repression.