U.S. To Scale Back Its Role In Internet Governance

Editor’s Note: Leonard Hyman is a government nerd and former Google Public Policy Fellow who lives in Los Angeles.

Even though the Internet has long been an international community, the United States has always been at its center. However, that all may be about to change as the U.S. Department of Commerce scales back its role in Internet governance. The transition is a gradual one, but by the end of the year, the DOC is expected to give up its oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to the international community.

The concept of “Internet governance” may seem like a bizarre one since it often seems like the Wild West out there. The most tangible example of ICANN‘s impact on Internet governance is management of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions: When you type a domain name in your browser (e.g. TechCrunch.com), it connects you with the long, multi-digit IP address that would otherwise be impossible to remember.

On its face, it may not seem like a big deal who manages this process. As long as TechCrunch.com actually gets you to TechCrunch.com, does it really matter if it’s the U.S., ICANN, or some random guy who’s behind it? But that question assumes that your URL actually gets you to your destination.

If a foreign government doesn’t want you accessing a certain URL, why not redirect you into a dead end? After all, naysayers argue, some countries already have robust firewalls, so why give them more control?

The Department of Commerce claims that by scaling back its role, it will be promoting “innovation and inclusion.” After all, if the Internet supposedly belongs to the world, shouldn’t it actually belong to the world?

Further, they maintain that it won’t relinquish control until safeguards are in place to prevent that from happening. (Will it live up to that promise? We’ll see!) At the same time, U.S. leadership in this area was called into question — perhaps justifiably — after Snowden’s NSA surveillance leaks. This is one of the factors that has nudged the U.S. toward giving up its contract. Maybe the international community would do a better job than we have.

As unfortunate as censorship would be for foreign countries, the bigger challenge for the average American may be managing the domains themselves. Over 1,000 generic Top Level Domains (e.g. dot-search, dot-eco, dot-docs, etc.) are slated to go live in the coming months. It could easily be a headache for corporations to buy the thousands of domains related to their brand. (Imagine if amazon.buy took you to the wrong site.) Of course, it could be an even bigger hassle for the budding startup, not to mention ICANN itself overseeing this entire process without the support of the U.S. government.

The Department of Commerce’s process of fully handing over the reins won’t be complete until later this year; its contract with ICANN expires in September. In the meantime, ICANN is slated to begin its next round of sessions in Buenos Aires in June. And because it’s a multi-stakeholder process, public participation is welcomed.

If you’re concerned about the impact ICANN’s increasing independence could have on a free and open Internet — and you fancy a trip to South America — I hear Argentina is lovely that time of year.