No shutdown, but US internet oversight sails away

Count me in the camp of those urging caution over a momentous event taking place Saturday. Namely, the end of any federal government role in how the internet operates. Does it have to be this Saturday?

Whether this is a good idea depends on how much confidence you have in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN will, by decree of the Obama administration in the agency of Tom Wheeler’s Federal Communication Commission, become free of oversight by the Commerce Department. It’s one of those cases where technology, politics and policy get mashed together into a hard-to-separate blob.

Congressional, mainly Republican, opposition to this transition got stripped out of the continuing resolution approved yesterday. It looks like a certainty.

Some critics say Obama is selling out America’s interest in favor of a “globalist” view that subsumes U.S. interests to some utopian vision. Others add that within a few years, ICANN will be unable to resist the pressures from Russia, North Korea, China and similarly repression-oriented governments to interfere with the assignment of names and domains to the internet’s “A” server. A group of 77 military and national security people sent a letter of protest to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford. They outline what they say is potential danger to U.S. security and military operations, which depend partly on the internet. No legally-binding instrument is in place to protect the dot-gov and dot-mil domains.

Proponents point out, Saturday’s handoff is merely the conclusion of a widely-supported Clinton-era initiative to privatize internet operations, which had been totally under a National Telecommunications and Information Administration contract with a single company. That’s when ICANN was established, though with NTIA oversight. The NTIA cites a long list of organizations, big and small, who say, let’s push ahead. They point out, the oversight has been no more than a formality because of how well things are working. This camp says, if the internet is everyone’s, or no one’s in particular, then a true, international, multi-stakeholder model should proceed. They, too have a letter from prominent groups endorsing transition.

To its credit, the NTIA has worked to keep ICANN out of control of the International Telecommunications Union. This United Nations group has acted at times in the same bizarre way as the UN itself — an organization that lets places like Saudi Arabia, beheading capital of the world, on its Human Rights Council.

The New York Times yesterday published a good overview of both sides.

My feeling is, if things are working so well, what’s the rush when there’s no real, hard deadline. I’d like to see more debate in Congress. For that matter, I’d like to see Hillary and Donald debate it.

This feels like an “ain’t broke / don’t fix” situation. As FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai (one of the two Republicans) points out, once ICANN sets sail, the move is irreversible. Should ICANN come under undue influence from national governments antithetical to the U.S., there’s nothing anyone could do about it.

ICANN itself says it has no power to regulate speech, that its functions are strictly technical. That’s technically true. And it’s true that, as things stand now, China, North Korea, Cuba and their ilk do a thorough job of throttling Internet freedom for their own citizens. But the technology and processes ICANN controls lie at the heart of internet security and the assurance that a site you go to is the one you intended to reach. The absence of U.S. oversight, however light or rarely used, safeguards that technology from the hands of bad actors.