Update: As of January 2015, congress had passed a budget measure intended to retain ICANN under U.S. stewardship. Mr. Strickland of the Commerce Dept. acknowledges ICANN's contract will not be cancelled prior to its September, 2015 expiration date. However, he is coy about whether the contract will be renewed.


April 2, 2014

Why the U.S. Should Keep ICANN

Since the dawn of the public internet,  the U.S. government has contracted with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a small non-profit, to maintain critical internet infrastructure.

Decision makers within the Department of Commerce now plan to abandon their stewardship of this infrastructure.  A March 14, 2014 press release explains the "transition" will "support and enhance the multistakeholder model of Internet policymaking and governance."

Is their "multistakeholder model" more important than a free, open and reliable internet?  I think not.

Under U.S. stewardship since Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency development funding in the 1960s, internet technology and infrastructure has grown to benefit billions of people around the globe every day.  I cannot think of another modern development with as great a positive impact on as many people, or of which the U.S. should rightly be more proud.

When the internet was first opened to private and commercial traffic, there was a notion that it should be turned over to the private sector for further development.  For most purposes, that turnover occurred long ago. 

The private sector has since contributed thousands of improvements.  Those improvements would not have been possible without stable and reliable core infrastructure, maintained under government contract.  Private sector enterprises worldwide compete vigorously, and add huge value, to an internet enabled by a stable, reliable core.

Today, any organization responsible for the internet's core infrastructure is automatically "too big to fail."  Multiple, competing entities sharing this responsibility is a recipe for disaster.

The internet's early designers took great care crafting an infrastructure robust enough to be resilient even to nuclear attack.  If part of the network is damaged, messages are automatically routed around the damage to arrive at their intended destination.  This  has worked much to the consternation of some who would prefer to control a critical route, and charge a high toll for access.  In the U.S. and other free countries, such miscreants are foiled by competing entities that establish alternative, competing routes.

In some countries, the miscreants are governments.  They have the power to control all network routes within their countries, and several do.  Thus, they can monitor, alter, or block all internet communications within their borders.  For example, they can intercept an inquiry to the internet's core authoritative database of web addresses, the one maintained by ICANN, and substitute the address of a bogus government web site.

Internet designers recognized the above vulnerability.  They dreamed of finding an alternative design, which did not require a single, authoritative, non-duplicative, logically consistent and well-connected core database of name and address assignments.  To date, no viable technical alternative has emerged.  If it did, the present core infrastructure could simply be turned under.  No turnover necessary.

Miscreant governments try their best to control internet operation outside their borders.  They decree that nobody anywhere can publish anything on the internet that might offend them.  Though difficult to enforce, they have some success muzzling companies who want to do business with them.  They are fervent at the prospect of "stakeholder" status to enforce their restrictions at the internet's core.

Today's global internet is not the uniformly free, open and reliable network favored by most in its country of birth.  The U.S. has shown remarkable leadership in demonstrating how free, open and reliable it can be.  There is no guarantee it will remain so, even within the U.S., and with its core infrastructure under control of the U.S. government.  There is virtual certainty it will become less so, even in the U.S., if its governance is shared with entities who directly oppose free, open and reliable operation.

But, some may ask, isn't it only fair that "stakeholders" around the world should get a say in how something that affects them as much as the internet is governed?

Governments already have absolute say on how (or whether) the internet operates within their borders.  Good luck giving their citizens any voice absent government acquiescence.  In return for extending internet governance privileges within the U.S., we can expect no say in internet governance of other countries.

Core internet infrastructure maintained by the U.S. is made freely available to all who find it beneficial.  The U.S. has historically listened, and in some cases accommodated, preferences of other countries.  For example, every country has been assigned a top level domain name, and given administrative authority within it.  Countries are free to use all, some, or none of this infrastructure.  They are also free to duplicate and modify it at will for local purposes.  All necessary protocols and specifications are freely available.  The U.S. does not have to modify its own internet infrastructure to make it usable by other countries.

Is there some principal of fairness or justice that demands these facilities, developed and maintained by the U.S., should be now abandoned by the U.S. government and subject to alterations imposed by friend and foe alike?  There is not.

If the administration's stated intentions are allowed to proceed, that is exactly what will happen.  Congress must act soon to preserve critical U.S., and maybe some day truly global, internet infrastructure.  If it doesn't, unchecked politics will likely destroy a world leading technical treasure.