The web may be thought of as being worldwide, but from its inception the internet was created, controlled and overseen largely by a single country: the United States. Now, however, the US Government has said it intends to yield the reins to the global digital community.
The US Commerce Department has announced that it has asked the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) to plan a handover to an as-yet-undefined group consisting of both private and public “stakeholders”.
Fadi Chehadé, the president and chief executive of Icann, said: “We are inviting governments, the private sector, civil society, and other internet organisations from the whole world to join us in developing this transition process… All stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and governance of this global resource as equal partners.”
Observers say the decision was prompted by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s recent revelations, and that the subsequent backlash may have forced the administration to relinquish its historical control over the administration of the internet. As Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington DC think-tank, put it, the US is “giving up its traditional ‘bodyguard’ role of Internet governance”.
The internet was developed as a US Defence Department initiative during the 1960s, and it remained an American project even as it grew into a global consumer tool. In order to maintain a unified, worldwide web, a single master list of web addresses was created, called the Domain Name System (DNS). Jon Postel, a computer scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles, was the first person responsible for DNS, a privilege that earned him the nickname “God”.
When Mr Postel died in 1998, the Commerce Department created Icann, a non-profit organisation headquartered in Los Angeles which took over control of the web’s crucial address list. Although Icann is nominally overseen by a selection of governmental and private “stakeholders”, it remains under contract from the US government.
In the short-term, the changes are likely to have little effect on internet users’ online experience. But observers say the planned handover is a concession designed to reassure other countries suspicious of the power the US wields over the web.
The information leaked by Mr Snowden regarding the extent of the National Security Agency’s digital surveillance activities, drew criticism not only of the US government, but also of major American web businesses accused of co-operating with the NSA. In February, the EU’s digital tsar Neelie Kroes called on the US to end its oversight of the internet.
In the past, the US has resisted demands from China, Russia and other countries to cede control of the internet to the United Nations. In its handover of Icann, the administration has stipulated that the replacement oversight body must be representative of “the global multistakeholder community”, and said it would not condone a “government-led or an inter-governmental organisation solution”.
Some were nonetheless concerned by the prospect of a globally controlled internet. The Republican former House Speaker and presidential contender Newt Gingrich said the handover “risks foreign dictatorships defining the Internet”.
Yet Dr Stephen Crocker, the chairman of Icann’s board, said the end of US government control was long-planned. “We have all long known the destination,” he said. “Now it is up to our global stakeholder community to determine the best route to get us there.”
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