As the Obama administration prepares to cede a key oversight role for the Internet and domain names, technology officials say the next challenge for the Web will be to ensure accountability and preserve the Internet's openness as a global communications and commerce network.
As early as the fall of 2015, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will open up to the global Internet community, constituting a retreat by the United States from the online leadership role it has traditionally held. The planned end of ICANN's contract with the Department of Commerce, which has caused a stir in the tech, business and political worlds, has given way to new worries about the Web infrastructure.
One concern is what individual governments will do as the U.S. steps back.
"The government of Turkey can block access to all of YouTube within its borders if it's unhappy with one or two videos," said Steve DelBianco, executive director at NetChoice, a trade association of e-commerce businesses. "Turkey's going to do that, no matter who's in charge of ICANN."
In the wake of several Internet-based controversies, including WikiLeaks and Internet outages in Egypt, Web governance has become a globalized issue. As ICANN's transition begins to take place, analysts say, doubts about accountability and access have eased.
"Contrary to some initial concerns that we're giving away the Internet, the response from the global community has been overwhelmingly supportive," Larry Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, told a forum hosted Tuesday by the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. Strickling said the administration was not giving away American property, "as if we were proposing that the United States give Alaska back to Russia."
The fear that individual governments and blocs of governments can control the flow of information or dictate the shape of the network "reflects a misunderstanding of the policymaking process at ICANN as well as a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word 'consensus.'"
"The Internet does not respect national boundaries. No one country, no two countries, no 10 countries can claim to speak on behalf of the public interest," he said.
Part of the reason for the government's move away from the Internet governance debate is the rising popularity of the multi-stakeholder model, giving more actors a voice in decisions regarding Internet governance.
"The goal is to ensure that you're creating an environment in which all stakeholders are — if not equally — significantly responsible and responsive to each other's needs so that the network itself remains to be global," said Danny Sepulveda, deputy assistant secretary of state and the department's point man on international communications and information-policy issues.
Technology specialists are calling for better accountability in ICANN while the transition takes place.
"I think it's important to acknowledge that arrangements of technology are always also arrangements of power," said Laura DeNardis, American University professor and author of "The Global War for Internet Governance."
Another issue to watch in the transition to fall 2015 is making sure "that this relationship not be captured or recaptured by governments or governmental organizations," said David Gross, Wily Rein LLP partner and former State Department official.
Mr. Gross noted recent calls by some French officials and several nongovernmental organizations for an increased role by the state and a reorganization of the structure of Internet governance.
"I mention these things really just to communicate the challenge that the community faces," he said. "One of the things which I think all of us have learned over the years is that these things are not only constantly changing, but are greatly influenced by geopolitical events globally."
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