It’s no surprise that whether you think that the plan to end U.S. control of the Internet domain name system (DNS) is a big deal or not may depend upon your political affiliation as a republican or a democrat. Beyond the usual theatrics, however, is an important question: Is the U.S. moving away from control of the levers of the Internet a dangerous step?
On March 14, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said that it would start the transition of the domain name system (DNS) to international control. Until this point, NTIA, which is part of the U.S. Commerce Department, held a contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to administer the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) system.
According to the press release from NTIA, IANA works with VeriSign to manage the root zone file, which is the database holding the names and addresses of top level domains. The release says that the move away from NTIA and toward international control is the last step in a privatization effort that began in 1997.
PCWorld offers a balanced synopsis of the two sides of the debate. Opponents of the move fear that the reduced U.S. influence will open the door to more control by totalitarian nations. Though the rules are set up now to preclude abuses, the absence of the United States in a leadership role, even though the country will still be represented as a member, will make it more likely that those rules will be ignored or gradually morph into something that is ineffective.
Proponents of the move feel that the dangers are overstated:
The Internet engineers, companies and civil society groups involved in ICANN wouldn’t allow a government takeover of the organization, supporters of the NTIA’s plan said. ‘I cannot imagine the Internet engineers that I know agreeing to do any of the parade of horribles that people are concerned about,’ said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a measure to require the Accountability Office to study the transition before it happens. That measure now goes to the full committee.
Forbes contributor Emma Woollacott suggested that a lot of fear mongering is at play:
While some countries have indeed attempted to place internet governance issues under the remit of the UN – and are expected to try again at the International Telecommunication Union Plenipotentiary Conference this October – the proposed changes wouldn’t make this any more likely.
The question remains: Why is the U.S. ceding control? BloombergBusinessweek came the closest to an answer to that question, which is that no justification has been presented for U.S. dominance:
It’s a bad sign that the U.S. has chosen to give up this power. It means that the administration doesn’t feel that it can get away with holding on to it, diplomatically, which means that on this issue, we no longer enjoy the support of countries such as Germany. Perhaps it was that time we tapped Angela Merkel’s cell phone.
ThinkProgress has more on the connection between the NSA spying scandal alluded to in the BloombergBusinessweek story and the U.S. move on ICANN. The two are not related, however, the case for the U.S. retaining control was made far more difficult by the abuses that Edward Snowden revealed.