The popularly held image of the Internet is that it exists as a global resource that — the best efforts of some governments notwithstanding — is impossible to fully control, almost like a technological force of nature.
But, of course, a clear Wi-Fi connection doesn’t just appear out of thin air. The Internet, like all types of man-made infrastructure, has regulations and dedicated human monitors. The ultimate authority, perhaps unknown to many of its global users, has been at the US Department of Commerce.
Now that setup is changing, leaving the future of global Internet governance in uncertain terrain and sparking an intense debate over who the overseers of the Internet should be and how they should operate. The argument is rife with competing national and corporate interests and could directly impact how the Internet grows for decades to come.
In August the Department of Commerce delayed, at least for another year, a long-standing White House plan to give up sole oversight of the group that oversees basic functionality of the Internet, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a semiautonomous nonprofit.
ICANN, based in Los Angeles, has three main components, responsible for the domain name system (DNS), the Internet protocol (IP) numbers that identify computers connected to the Web and the system used to connect computers to one another. The organization is basically responsible for supervising the connections among users and websites and ensuring that information gets from one place to another via the Internet.
But in June the House of Representatives passed a bill mandating congressional review of the proposed transfer of the US-controlled ICANN to a global body or international group, citing concerns about influence by authoritarian regimes.
In light of revelations of US spying and considerable international pressure to change, ICANN is now struggling to transition into a being fully independent operator — despite the best efforts of supporting organizations and the input of hundreds of interested parties.
Eventually, the hope is that ICANN will be run through a mandate from an international body made up of a mixture of corporations, civil society groups and representatives from the world’s governments, a model that has been dubbed multistakeholder. The new incarnation of ICANN will eventually decide who's in charge and how to best manage a free and open Internet. But getting ICANN to that point is easier said than done.
Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden and an influential thinker on Internet governance, wrote in March, “There is a recognition that we are entering into a new and even more important phase in the evolution of the Net and its importance for our societies.”
It is a huge global issue. In the past 15 years, Internet use has boomed around the world. In Africa, Internet access has increased nearly 7,000 percent. In the Middle East, it’s a 3,000 percent. But all these new users want a piece of the governance pie, to have some authority over their domains.
Although many experts believe the US has done a good job guaranteeing Internet continuity, what’s next may not be easy. A draft proposal from ICANN’s internal transition committee has quickly become divisive, as concern over policies that seem to prioritize American corporate interests threaten negotiations for control of the Web. A tug of war over jurisdiction, governmental involvement and human rights law is brewing.
For example, because ICANN’s California legal jurisdiction is not yet set to change and because there is no higher international court with the authority, many ICANN experts are concerned about U.S. judicial precedent favoring large corporations in intellectual property disputes.
The proposal was submitted for public comment at the end of July, and ICANN watchers around the world jumped at the chance to dissect and debate it.
Engineers from ICANN’s three main divisions authored the 199-page document outlining the transition of ICANN’s largest subgroup, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, out from under the Department of Commerce and into its new role as a subsidiary and partner of ICANN.
Alissa Cooper, one of the lead authors of the proposal, is an American engineer and the chairwoman of the IANA stewardship transition coordination group. She supervises volunteers who write, revise and submit to Congress the document outlining the steps of the transition and the new shape of ICANN.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “There have been literally hundreds of people involved in this process.”
One key issue is the huge complexity of the topic. Besides the engineers who wrote it, almost no one can understand the proposal. And for an attempt at a document that claims to seek full-bodied support from the average global Internet user, this may be unfortunate.
“The proposal is very technical,” said Arun Sukumar, a lawyer and the head of the cyber initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi–based think tank, who has been studying Internet governance and writing about ICANN’s predicament from an Indian perspective. “The technicalities in the IANA proposal pose a challenge because if civil society groups and businesses don’t understand the proposal fully, then it’s going to be a problem.”
Also, he said, there is not enough diversity in ICANN, so any proposal will put developing, non-Western countries — even those that want to be involved — at an immediate disadvantage.
“The IANA proposal does not adequately address the issue of diversity or human rights within ICANN,” said Sukumar. “We see primarily American corporations and organizations, and they tend to aggressively dominate the debate.”
Many members of a major initiative led by Bildt, the Global Commission on Internet Governance, agree that the lack of diversity in ICANN is stark.
Emily Taylor, an expert in Internet law and an associate at the UK-based Chatham House think tank, believes ICANN could address diversity issues by better supporting multilingual domain names.
While users have recently been able to register domain name suffixes in Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew, they don’t work in most email programs or in a predictable way in many browsers.
“For the billions of users who aren’t familiar with Latin script, that’s a fairly major drawback,” said Taylor. “Why is it that ICANN finds it difficult to do this?”
The debate will continue at ICANN’s next meeting, later this month in Dublin.
“It’s hard to believe how our institutions are so underdeveloped in this space,” said Eileen Donohoe, an Internet expert and a former US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.
She compared the growth of the Internet to a rain forest, with multiple co-existing species that make up parts of the whole and contribute to the ecosystem. It’s blooming chaotically, growing far beyond what American borders can contain.
“No one controls a rain forest, but a rain forest can be destroyed,” Donohoe said. “We’re all dependent on the functionality of it, so we should all be invested in ensuring its health.”