Who controls the internet? Depends on whom you ask, and what you mean by “control.” The internet as we know it now is a miracle of free enterprise and free speech, massive but manageable, held together by a traffic-control organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This non-profit entity based in California sets up root systems throughout the world (13 systems so far) and serves as the standard directory for domain names and the number codes associated with them.
ICANN consists of a 16-member board and three supporting organizations, with an international advisory committee that includes more than 100 representatives from around the globe. But—and this is the vital link—ICANN is licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Its contract expires in September 2015. Earlier this month, Commerce Department Under-Secretary Lawrence Strickling announced that control of ICANN would pass to an international board.
In other words, the United States is handing over control of the internet to the “global community.” Congress can stop it, but so far has limited its objections to a resolution.
Supporters of the move say it’s no big deal; ever since ICANN was established in 1998, its goal was to eventually let go of the internet’s sweaty little hand after it had grown up and established itself. The mission of ICANN was to develop a democratic, bottom-up communications system that would operate with a minimum of oversight. And that’s what happened. For good or ill, just about anything goes in cyberspace, from terrorist recruiting to porn to educational lectures to life-changing sermons. Websites can be blocked, but they can’t be shut down.
Then came Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread spying by the National Security Agency. China, Russia, et al, largely content in times past to leave well enough alone, are clamoring for their share of control.
Spreading the present operations of ICANN among the nations, or (even worse) the UN, won’t affect the operations of the NSA, so complaints about U.S. spying sound like a convenient excuse. Removing control of the internet from the most stable (so far) and freedom-loving (again, so far) nation on earth will only pitch it into a pack of snarling wolves. There is no “global community.” The world, just as it always has been, is a clutch of nations and factions jockeying for power among themselves. The nation most responsible for creating, developing, and maintaining the internet—just as it built and maintained the Panama Canal—seems to be the best bet for controlling. Yet in 1977, the United States agreed to turn over control of the canal to the Panamanian Canal Authority, effective 1999. At least the PCA is a recognizable organization, but now we’re ready to hand over the keys to the internet—an even more vital global passageway—to an as-yet-undefined multiplicity of nations with competing interests and little good will. Why do we keep doing things like this?
It’s another sign that the most prosperous, most free, most confident nation in history is losing its confidence rapidly—with consequences yet unknown.