How to Privatize the Internet

by on April 2, 2014 · 0 comments

Today on Capitol Hill, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on the NTIA’s recent announcement that it will relinquish its small but important administrative role in the Internet’s domain name system. The announcement has alarmed some policymakers with a well-placed concern for the future of Internet freedom; hence the hearing. Tomorrow, I will be on a panel at ITIF discussing the IANA oversight transition, which promises to be a great discussion.

My general view is that if well executed, the transition of the DNS from government oversight to purely private control could actually help secure a measure of Internet freedom for another generation—but the transition is not without its potential pitfalls.

The NTIA’s technical administration of the DNS’ “root zone” is an artifact of the Internet’s origins as a U.S. military experiment. In 1989, the government began the process of privatizing the Internet by opening it up to general and commercial use. In 1998, the Commerce Department created ICANN to oversee the DNS on a day-to-day basis. The NTIA’s announcement is arguably the culmination of this single decades-long process of privatization.

The announcement also undercuts the primary justification used by authoritarian regimes to agitate for control of the Internet. Other governments have long cited the United States’ unilateral control of the root zone, arguing that they, too, should have roles in governing the Internet. By relinquishing its oversight of the DNS, the United States significantly undermines that argument and bolsters the case for private administration of the Internet.

The United States’ stewardship of the root zone is largely apolitical. This apolitical approach to DNS administration is precisely what is at stake during the transition, hence the three pitfalls the Obama administration must avoid to preserve it.

The first pitfall is the most serious but also the least likely to materialize. Despite the NTIA’s excellent track record, authoritarian regimes like Russia, China, and Iran have long lobbied for the ITU, a clumsy and heavily politicized U.N. technical agency, to take over the NTIA’s duties. In its announcement, the NTIA said it would not accept a proposal from an intergovernmental organization, a clear rebuke to the ITU.

Nevertheless, liberal governments would be wise to send the organization a clear message in the form of much-needed reform. The ITU should adopt the transparency we expect of communications standards bodies, and it should focus on its core competency—international coordination of radio spectrum—instead of on Internet governance. If the ITU resists these reforms at its Plenipotentiary Conference this fall, the United States and other countries should slash funding or quit the Union.

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) presents a second pitfall. Indeed, the GAC is already the source of much mischief. For example, France and Luxembourg objected to the creation of the .vin top-level domain on the grounds that “vin” (wine) is a regulated term in those countries. Brazil and Peru have held up’s application for .amazon despite the fact that they previously agreed to the list of reserved place names, and rivers and states were not on it. Last July, the U.S. government, reeling from the Edward Snowden revelations, threw Amazon and the rule of law under the bus at the GAC as a conciliatory measure.

ICANN created the GAC to appease other governments in light of the United States’ outsized role. Since the United States is giving up its special role, the case for the GAC is much diminished. In practice, the limits on the GAC’s power are gradually eroding. ICANN’s board seems increasingly hesitant to overrule it out of fear that governments will go back to the ITU and complain that the GAC “isn’t working.” As part of the transition of the root zone to ICANN, therefore, new limits need to be placed on the GAC’s power. Ideally, it would dissolve the GAC.

The third pitfall comes from ICANN itself. The organization is awash in cash from domain registration fees and new top-level domain name applications—which cost $185,000 each—and when the root zone transition is completed, it will face no external accountability. Long-time ICANN insiders speak of “mission creep,” noting that the supposedly purely technical organization increasingly deals with trademark policy and has aided police investigations in the past, a dangerous precedent.

How can we prevent an unaccountable, cash-rich technical organization from imposing its own internal politics on what is supposed to be an apolitical administrative role? In the long run, we may never be able to stop ICANN from becoming a government-like entity, which is why it is important to support research and experimentation in peer-to-peer, decentralized domain name systems. This matter is under discussion, among other places, at the Internet Engineering Task Force, which may ultimately play something of a counterweight to an independent ICANN.

Despite these potential pitfalls, it is time for an Internet that is fully in private hands. The Obama administration deserves credit for proposing to complete the privatization of the Internet, but we must also carefully monitor the process to intercept any blunders that might result in politicization of the root zone.

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