In a little-noticed corner at the intersection of technology and policy, big changes are underway that could have a profound impact on the Internet as we know it.
Unless government policy makers are careful, the role of the Internet as a global engine of innovation and free expression could be at risk.
As is widely acknowledged—but perhaps not fully appreciated—the Internet began in the 1970s as a U.S. government-funded project to establish an efficient and survivable network of networks that could operate outside of the public-switched telephone network. While today the Internet represents trillions of dollars of infrastructure investments made by global public and private network operators, its functioning still relies on the coordination and execution of four discrete technical functions collectively referred to as the IANA functions. For an admittedly gross over-simplification, think of the IANA functions as a “yellow pages” of sorts, which allows computers to know where and how to direct traffic to its final destination, and to allow human beings to understand these directions by converting computer language (e.g. a series of numbers 188.8.131.52) into recognizable words and letters (e.g. www.icann.org).
In these very early days, only the U.S. government and certain universities could connect to the Internet. However, in the 1990s, the United States decided to open the Internet to the world, allowing non-federal users both public and private. Recognizing that the Internet would best flourish under the stewardship of the private sector, rather than any government, the United States sponsored the creation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to act as an independent service provider that could perform the technical IANA functions in an open, transparent and independent fashion. The contracts under which ICANN provided these services were to be managed by the United States Department of Commerce for a transition period, and they conferred to ICANN a certain amount of accountability and legitimacy.
We should pause here a moment to recognize what an open and generous—what a quintessentially American—act this was. In an age of globalization and economic competition among nations, the United States developed the greatest engine for innovation, productivity, and free expression ever known. Rather than try to exploit this tool for its own economic or strategic interests, the United States threw it open to the rest of the world without condition or reservation. In the ensuing years, while the United States has provided stewardship and a backstop to ICANN as it developed into an institution able to stand on its own, the U.S. has never attempted to influence ICANN for any economic, political or strategic gains. It’s been a remarkable success and one that is rarely acknowledged by those who would seek to risk its undoing.
Now, the United States government has expressed its intention to step away from its historic role with ICANN, and here is where the risks emerge. To ensure that it remains a private sector institution, free from any government control, ICANN is struggling to construct self-imposed “accountability measures.” This is impossible. Accountability, and the legitimacy that follows, can only be conferred on ICANN by entities apart and separate from ICANN. To date, that externality has been amorphously referred to as “the community,” by which ICANN seems to mean the community of people who rely on the Internet, which in today’s world means everyone on the planet (directly or indirectly). This means that ICANN is accountable to everyone, which means it is really accountable to no one.
It is into this void that certain foreign governments would like to step. Throughout the U.S. sponsorship of ICANN, China, Russia, Iran (none notable champions of free expression) and others have repeatedly called for ICANN to be managed by the United Nations or some other intergovernmental body. Despite the fact that it has been successfully managed as a private-sector led body, these countries seek to insert the very government influence that the U.S. has guarded against throughout its entire sponsorship of ICANN.
While some of these countries now profess to be satisfied with ICANN’s emerging accountability measures, this should be cause for alarm, not comfort. If China and Russia are satisfied, it’s not because they have been converted to the virtues of private-sector management and free expression, it’s because they recognize that ICANN’s self-imposed accountability is no accountability at all—and that in this void (and without U.S. oversight) they will be able to exert their influence unchallenged. While the ultimate separation of the U.S. government from ICANN is important, we must take all the time necessary to ensure that a standalone ICANN can stand against government interference.
The solution is two-fold. First, ICANN must be re-focused as a technical service provider engaged in the limited, discrete, and technical functions for which it was created—the IANA functions. ICANN should no more be the policy apparatus for the Internet than the publisher of the yellow pages should be a telecom regulator.
Second, ICANN must enter into contracts for the provision of those services to the parties that are ultimately responsible for them (Regional Internet Registries, the Internet Engineering Task Force, Internet Society, etc). Indeed, in the world of the private-sector—in which ICANN claims it belongs—accountability is enforced through contracts and the rule of law, not through some subjective “accountability measures,” no matter how well-intentioned. Rather than the entire addressable universe of the Internet “community,” ICANN should be contractually accountable to those members of the community to whom it provides the technical IANA functions. It is those members that may confer legitimacy on ICANN.
John Kneuer is the former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, the agency responsible for U.S. government interactions with ICANN.