ICANN: never mind the conspiracy theories

18 Mar 2014

As you no doubt know, the US government has announced it will give up control of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is working to transition governance of ICANN to the global community, with input from stakeholders such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the Internet Society (ISOC), the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), TLD operators and VeriSign, to make that happen.

As you also may have noticed, the internet is rife with dithering over the news, which can be divided into two camps:

1. President Obama has effectively handed control of the entire internet over to Russia, China, or – worst of all – the United Nations.

2. The move could spell the end of free speech on the internet.

The first one is just the usual reactionary rhetoric from Republican politicians and pundits who are basically reviving the same arguments they deployed back when they were convinced that the International Telecommunication Union was plotting a global takeover of the internet at WCIT-12.

In fact, those arguments don’t even apply. The transition from ICANN is being hashed out on the condition from NTIA that no government or government-led entity like the ITU will take over the current contract, and that ICANN will maintain the open multi-stakeholder model it operates under now.

Indeed, a number of Internet players who were opposed to the ITU assuming ICANN’s role have applauded the current announcement, including TCP/IP co-inventor Vint Cerf, according to Ars Technica:

"The announced change would ultimately eliminate the contract between ICANN and NTIA and leave it to ICANN and the Internet community to create a transparency and accountability regime that is rooted in the multistakeholder model of administration," he wrote. "The Affirmation of Commitment (AOC) might be revised in such a way that any interested government could sign on to a relationship with ICANN. The AOC is not an oversight relationship. Rather, it is a mutual commitment by ICANN and a government to recognize one another's responsibilities regarding the Internet, within the context of ICANN's specific role."

Still, that may not matter to Obama’s Republican critics, who tend to portray every decision he’s ever made as an utter disaster for America regardless of how accurate a description that is. That’s politics. And it is an election year for Congress. So expect more of that.

As for “the end of free speech”, that appears to be the product of people who either don’t really understand just what ICANN does in the first place, or are assuming – like US Republicans, and again, wrongly – that ICANN will now be taken over by censor-happy governments.

Still concerned about ICANN?

My advice: don’t be.

Overall, it’s a good move that had to happen eventually. NTIA always intended to cut ICANN loose sooner or later, and the NSA surveillance flap has apparently hurried things along.

It will be interesting to see what form ICANN takes, but it’s likely to maintain the multi-stakeholder model, because it works. There’s no reason why it can’t – or shouldn’t – function as a fully independent global entity.

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