Yes, we ICANN, but maybe not for much longer

A huge announcement was buried in last week’s Friday night news dump, which leads one to suspect the Obama Administration wanted to catch critics off-guard.  The announcement concerned the impending transfer of authority over Internet domains to a global body… which doesn’t actually exist yet.

To put the situation in basic terms: every time you type a web address into your browser, your computer translates the address into a long series of numbers.  Website names are just symbolic representations of these numbers.  They’re more appealing and easily remembered by users.  People don’t have much chance of remembering a ten- or twelve-digit Internet address, but they can remember something like “”  Larger websites can actually have multiple number addresses that respond to the same website name.

As you might imagine, this translation of website names to Internet addresses must be handled by some central authority.  Until the late 1990s, the master lists were overseen by a relatively small group of people led by pioneering computer scientist Jon Postel at the University of Southern California.  After Postel died in 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was born.

The smooth and open operation of the Internet is deeply dependent upon ICANN.  Without a carefully maintained master list of website names and Internet address numbers, the Web browsing experience as we know it would cease to function.  And that wouldn’t just be an inconvenience to users, although the magnitude of that inconvenience cannot be underestimated – our information society depends on people with extremely minimal computer knowledge being able to quickly and easily pull up websites.  A huge amount of international commercial activity is now plugged into those web domains.

There have been criticisms of ICANN, particularly recent decisions to greatly expand the number of available domain types (beyond the classics like .com, .net, and .gov, we’ll have stuff like “.sucks”) but on balance, Internet users and business interests have been very happy with American stewardship of the Internet, which after all was invented by an American, namely Albert Gore Jr.  However, there has always been some discussion of handing ICANN over to some sort of global authority sooner or later.  It is indeed a corporation, and it operates under contract with the U.S. Commerce Department.  The current contract is due to expire in late 2015.  Last Friday, the Obama Administration quietly announced that the contract would not be renewed.

Supporters of this decision are quick to assure us that nothing bad could possibly happen.  Global control is supposedly an inherently wonderful and just development in the life of the Internet.  Promises have been made that totalitarian foreign governments, such as Russia, China, and Iran, will not be allowed to take control of Internet domains… even though Russia, China, and Iran have expressed great interest in gaining such influence.  We have also been promised that corrupt agencies of the United Nations, such as the one that governs international telephony, will not be placed in charge of ICANN.

But one point raised by critics is that once American guardianship of the Internet has been surrendered, we’ll never be able to get it back, so we really don’t have any ironclad assurances that bad actors won’t end up with some measure of influence.  There will be no real authority to prevent it.  The global successor to ICANN doesn’t exist yet, not even in theory.  “Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the Internet to an undefined group,” warned former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on Friday night.  “This is very, very dangerous.”

It’s not just the obvious tyrants we need to worry about.  Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) mentioned his reservations about Russia and China, but then put his finger squarely on the larger and more uncomfortable problem: “To be blunt, the ‘global internet community’ this would empower has no First Amendment.”

If I might be even blunter: the United States isn’t quite the haven for free expression that it used to be, with a disturbing number of people and groups openly calling for dissent to be silenced, but we’re still head and shoulders above the rest of the world on that score, including the “nice” parts of the world.  Just about everyone else has speech codes that would be struck down as unconstitutional in America.  And it wasn’t so long ago that America’s Ruling Class – reacting to a false story about the Benghazi attacks spread by a desperate Obama Administration – spent days agonizing over the limits of free speech that might prove vigorously offensive to certain groups.  Give that mindset – ascendant or dominant in the rest of the world – a crack at controlling Internet domains, and we might soon be surprised at how many “offensive” websites get strangled in their digital cribs by the new global authority.

With all the money surging through the Internet, domain registration could also become a potent instrument of economic warfare.  This is supposed to be one of the reasons we can trust the new “multi-stakeholder” model of Internet stewardship: everybody’s got a stake.  Nobody would want to destabilize lucrative global commerce that benefits every advanced nation, would they?

And yet, the threat of economic sanctions doesn’t seem to faze determined aggressors.  They often assume the U.S. economy would be more damaged by economic warfare than they would be.  That would be a particularly valid assumption to make in the area of Internet commerce.  Why should Americans be willing to create a situation where control of the Internet could be used against them as a weapon, merely because today’s politicians and analysts assure us they cannot imagine such a thing happening?  We’ve paid too many steep prices for shortages of bureaucratic imagination.

Beyond organized economic aggression, there is also online mischief and banditry to contend with.  Hackers and scammers have already infested much of the Web.  Some business leaders have expressed reservations about the ability of a multi-national organization to battle these threats effectively.

There are also concerns about the circumstances that prompted the sudden announcement of ICANN handover.  As mentioned above, it’s not an entirely new idea, but why now?  The Administration officially denies this, but virtually everyone else thinks it has something to do with the Edward Snowden revelations and the NSA spying scandal.  None of those intelligence activities had anything to do with ICANN’s functions, but it is said that the global Internet community no longer trusts the United States to supervise domains… and by appearing to accept this criticism, the Obama Administration validates it.

This is arguably the worst time to back away from American stewardship of the Internet – implicitly agreeing it’s a job we can’t handle any more, announcing plans to hand it off to an agency that doesn’t even exist yet.  Perhaps the Administration is over-estimating inherent public enthusiasm for global organizations, which are supposed to be automatically more sophisticated and just than American institutions.  Resistance to SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, was far more powerful, and organized much more swiftly, than its authors anticipated.  Something similar may happen here.

On the other hand, some guarded criticism of the ICANN handover might dissipate when its multi-national successor has been clearly defined and chartered.  Uncertainty surely plays a role in some of the early negative reactions from business interests and user groups.  People weary of “change” for its own sake may wonder why they should be eager for an international “fix” to an American system that isn’t broken.  U.S. citizens slogging through years of economic stagnation question the wisdom of giving away another American advantage, especially if we’re effectively getting shamed into it.

Just about every “reassuring” analysis of this important Internet concession assures us that in the short term, nothing will change for users or business operations.  None of them can make any promises about the long term.  That’s what makes critics so nervous.