A “Small Technical Issue” or the “Future of the Internet”?

FairWinds Partners ⬥ 15 April

Education Begins On Meaning of U.S. Address System Oversight

The debate over a proposed transfer of authority over the Internet address system has been launched in Washington D.C., generating plenty of heat, many opinions, a few concrete proposals, and not a lot of light. Indeed, what has been illuminated most brightly is the confusion among policymakers about how the Internet really works.

“Generally, when the Congress gets involved in the engineering questions of the Internet, we sometimes show we don’t understand the Internet,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who represents part of Silicon Valley.

Two House hearings, three House bills, and at least two think tank discussions within the past two weeks have nevertheless served as a foundation from which to review the past, present, and future of Internet governance. Americans, take note: This affects you.

At stake is the announcement by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on March 22 that it would transfer authority over the allocation and coordination of Internet addresses to the global “multistakeholder community,” which consists of engineers, business, non-governmental organizations, governments, and individuals from all over the world.

The transfer has been envisioned since 1998 when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was established to oversee and coordinate the address system. The Department of Commerce kept its hand in the game, benignly, as ICANN launched operations. The transfer was further anticipated in 2012 when the House unanimously endorsed a resolution backing the multistakeholder model of Internet governance, which is the model ICANN follows.

Now that ICANN has managed the address system for 15 years, Republicans are raising alarms – both legitimate and politically motivated alarms. Some revolve around Republican concerns about economic and national security interests, and some undoubtedly are to question in public forums President Obama’s leadership on international affairs.

The fear, Republicans say, is that the U.S. will hand over control of the Internet, just like it did in 1977 with the Panama Canal. In the worse case scenario, China, Russia or other authoritarian regimes would seize control and impose speech restrictions beyond their own borders, Republicans say.

“I cannot overstate the importance of an Internet free from government control,” Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said at a hearing before his Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. “If there aren’t sufficient safeguards to ensure no government intrusion, this concept should go no further.”

But control of the Internet is not at stake here. No one controls the Internet, unless it is the engineers who understand the mathematical formulas that connect networks and devices. Oversight of the Internet address system is the issue, and witnesses at the two House hearings had very different takes on the importance of the U.S. role.

Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Larry Strickling, who testified at both House hearings, downplayed the importance of the oversight role played by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which he heads.

“It’s largely a clerical role,” he said of NTIA’s approval of directives from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), a department within ICANN that oversees the global allocation of Internet addresses and manages the “root zone,” where all top-level domains, .COM, .GOV, .EDU, etc., reside.

At another point, he said IANA functions amounted to “a small technical issue” and stressed that NTIA has no policy-making authority.

But Republicans asserted that oversight of the address system affects the core of Internet governance.

“All hyperbole aside,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., “this hearing is about nothing less than the future of the Internet and, significantly, who has the right, ability, authority to determine it. Should it be decided by a few people in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Sao Paolo, or even Silicon Valley, or should it be determined by those who use and stand to benefit from it.”

Paul Rosenzweig of the conservative Heritage Foundation echoed Goodlatte’s assessment.

“This is quite a consequential change,” he told the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet. “The network as we know it is a central driver of economic and political freedom around the globe. Any change to its governance comes with significant potential risks and also potential gains.”

Strickling and ICANN President Fade Chehade stressed again and again that they would not allow the transfer if there were any chance authoritarian governments could seize control. In fact, NTIA has sketched out four principles that must be met by any transition proposal.

  1. The transition plan must support the multistakeholder form of governance
  2. It must maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet
  3. It must meet the needs of global Internet customers vis a vis timeliness of services, transparency, reliability, auditability
  4. And it must maintain the openness of the Internet

Two witnesses at the House hearings offered solutions to ensure these principles are met.

Rosenzweig suggested outside audits of IANA functions, an IANA inspector general, a commitment to be responsive to the public, and assurances that once the structure is in place, it doesn’t change.

“The challenge for ICANN going forward,” he said, “is to develop an architecture for the IANA function that ensures its technical capability and maintains a political independence from control of authoritarian regimes. I think there is a possibility for that structure to be developed.”

Steve DelBianco, Executive Director of NetChoice, an e-commerce trade association, called for “scenario planning” or “stress tests” to assess whatever new accountability structure might replace the current set up.

He laid out eight scenarios that could jeopardize ICANN’s ability to oversee Internet address functions. One scenario anticipates ICANN’s bankruptcy, another anticipates ICANN moving the base of its operations out of the U.S., a third anticipates a change from consensus to majority voting, a fourth anticipates ICANN adding a new top-level domain despite security and stability concerns, and so on.

“Although these scenarios are unlikely,” DelBianco said, “some governments have expressed skepticism and dissatisfaction with the multistakeholder process and might pursue such courses of action… If we establish appropriate scenarios and stress tests as part of the process to design new accountability mechanisms,” DelBianco said, “we’ll end up with something that will answer to the threats and challenges we’re likely to face in the real world.”

The transfer of IANA oversight from NTIA to the multistakeholder community is supported by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco, Verizon, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Chamber of Commerce. Those are powerful constituencies. But their motivations – expanding their global markets – are decidedly different from government motivations.

And the government motivation seems twofold: Follow through on the original plan from 1998 and gain some good will from the International community in the wake of revelations about National Security Agency’s vast surveillance program, exposed by Edward Snowden.

“Counterintuitive as it may seem, Washington’s decision to sever its ties to ICANN might have been the best way to guarantee openness, especially since the Commerce Department has stipulated that it will not implement the decision if Internet regulation falls to a government-led or government-only organization,” Stacie L. Pettyjohn wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Had the United States kept its fist clenched around ICANN, it would have undermined faith in the multistakeholder model of Internet governance and empowered the ITU (The United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union). Instead, Washington has disarmed critics and helped ensure that the Internet will remain open and free.”

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