Internet governance – The Economist
IS THE internet about to fall apart? Just a few weeks ago it seemed possible. First Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, said her country would seek to circumvent internet services based in America; then Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, said she would back calls to create a separate European internet. Both were furious that America’s National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on their communications.
But on March 14th the likelihood receded that either would embark on a costly, damaging and quixotic redesign of the internet’s architecture. America’s Department of Commerce said it planned to relinquish its role in managing the internet’s address system, preferably by September 2015. The move may also have cleared the way for a much-needed wider reform of the way the internet is governed.
America’s role in administering the internet’s phone book is a wonkish delight, but also highly symbolic. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which unites all those with a direct interest in the smooth running of the network (internet-service providers, governments, users and so on) does most of the work. But the approval of the commerce department is still required in certain areas, including changes that affect the “root file” of the internet’s domain-name system—a vestige of the history of the internet, which started as a project of America’s Department of Defence.
In practice much of the task is automated and America’s government has never blocked changes proposed by ICANN. Indeed, it has always said it would relinquish its role as the internet’s final arbiter at some future moment. But in recent years more and more countries have chafed at the delay. Most of the internet’s 2.8 billion users now live outside America’s borders and a growing share of traffic no longer passes over American cables. The NSA’s snooping, though technically unrelated to managing internet addresses, was the final straw. “Large-scale surveillance and intelligence activities have also led to a loss of confidence in the internet and its present governance arrangements,” the European Commission declared in February.
More important than who runs ICANN is the fact that arguments over the issue have long blocked broader reforms. “Internet names and numbers are a critical resource and need centralised co-ordination, but they are only one part of internet governance,” says Laura DeNardis of the American University in Washington, DC. Her recent book, “The Global War for Internet Governance”, includes only one chapter on ICANN. More serious, she argues, is the failure of a hotch-potch of organisations with ill-co-ordinated roles to tackle growing problems such as freedom of speech and intellectual-property rights.
Several international meetings this and next year seek to make progress on these fronts. The first is NETmundial, a shindig in São Paulo on April 23rd and 24th initiated by the Brazilian government in reaction to the NSA scandal. It aims to draw up broad principles for internet governance, including how to protect human rights and privacy online, and to start the process of institutional reform. “The current set-up doesn’t address issues such as privacy and cyber-security,” explains Virgílio Almeida, Brazil’s secretary for IT policy.
NETmundial is unlikely to produce firm proposals, but several will soon emerge. In mid-May a panel of the internet’s great and good, including Fadi Chehadé, ICANN’s boss, and Vint Cerf, one of the network’s fathers, will publish its blueprint. Early signs suggest it will recommend tackling new problems with ad-hoc groups of existing organisations, to be disbanded once the issue at hand is resolved, rather than creating a new overarching global body for internet governance.
It may take years to arrive at a consensus. In the meantime, the question of who ICANN should report to, if not America’s government, is bound to sow further discord. Lawrence Strickling, the official at the Commerce Department in charge of ICANN, has made it clear that America will not hand over the reins to just anybody—in particular, not to an organisation led by another government or group of governments. Finding a solution that is acceptable to America is likely to keep armies of diplomats busy for some time.
After Mr Strickling’s announcement it took Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the house of representatives, just minutes to tweet: “Every American should worry about [President] Obama giving up control of the Internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous.” No matter how reasoned the discussions about who should oversee ICANN, and about internet governance more generally, they risk falling victim to America’s divided domestic politics.