On Friday, March 14, 2014, after a little more than 15 years of control, the United States National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intention to relinquish its remaining control of the Internet and oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Set to occur by fall 2015 (at the expiration of ICANN’s current contract in September 2015), this migration marks yet another step in the U.S. government’s scheme to privatize the oversight of Internet domain names and end years of criticism from the global community that the United States has too much control over the borderless Internet.
ICANN, a nonprofit private organization created in 1998, is responsible for:
Coordinating the global Internet's systems of unique identifiers and ensuring its stable and secure operation
Coordinating Internet protocol (IP) address spaces
Facilitating the assignment of address blocks to regional Internet registries
Maintaining registries of Internet protocol identifiers
Managing the top-level domain space, which includes the operation of root name servers.
For those less technologically inclined, ICANN controls the process by which websites are allocated their names.
The move by the NTIA has been viewed as a response to increasing international concern about U.S. control over the Internet's structure, particularly in light of the recent leaks by the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. In addition, ICANN has come under criticism for being too beholden to the interests of large companies from which it makes its money (i.e., domain registrars that sell domain names).
A New System of Governance
ICANN is now tasked with implementing a new privatized system of Internet governance. If the NTIA believes that the model developed by ICANN is sufficient to continue the smooth operation of the Internet without government oversight, it will allow NTIA’s contract with ICANN to lapse in September 2015. ICANN’s executives have promised that government involvement would not be considered. Lawrence Strickland, Administrator of the NTIA, has said he would “not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA with a government-led or intergovernmental solution.” Rather, he is looking for a model that must "support and enhance the multistakeholder model" and "maintain the openness of the Internet."
ICANN Chief Executive Fadi Chehadé said the U.S. decision "marks a point of maturity in the ICANN community and the global Internet community," and that NTIA is “entrusting ICANN to convene the global community." ICANN issued a statement that the first community-wide dialogue about the development of the transitional process will begin March 23–27 during ICANN's 49th Public Meeting in Singapore. Mr. Chehadé noted that "[w]e are inviting governments, the private sector, civil society, and other Internet organizations from the whole world to join us in developing this transition process [as all] stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and governance of this global resource as equal partners."
The decision has received mixed reviews from the public thus far. Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), said that "this is a very constructive step, definitely in the right direction, and a unique opportunity to make progress in the evolution of the internet governance ecosystem." On the other hand, the decision continues to be debated among technologists and policymakers. Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, said, "If you hand over domain-name registration to someone who doesn't want certain classes of domains registered, then you're setting up a censorship structure."
At this point in time, it is truly unknown what impact the U.S. relinquishment of ICANN will have. When asked if there would be any visible impact on the Internet for the average consumer, Mr. Chehadé said "The answer is a flat no." Moreover, the U.S. relinquishment does not mean that the United States will have no control over the Internet. The United States will continue to exercise jurisdiction over conduct impacting the United States, including the ability and authority to block certain websites for reasons such as copyright infringement or counterfeiting.
Wilson Elser's Intellectual Property practice will continue to monitor the developments surrounding the U.S. decision to relinquish its control over ICANN.