I can, you can, but can ICANN

There are many internet domain names you and I are familiar with.

There’s .com, .net, .org, .info, .biz, .edu and .gov.

But are you familiar with .asia, .mobi, .pro, .name, .cat, .travel or .coop?

How about .int, .jobs, .aero, .mil, .tel, .museum, .post or the triple-x, racy to raunchy domain of .xxx?

All of these and hundreds more are registered with ICANN. Someday there will be thousands.

And they’ll all be coordinated by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

If your relationship with the Internet is like mine, you’ve been using it for years and never heard of ICANN until recently when headlines shrieked in mid March “U.S. is giving up control of the Internet.”

“Now, now,” some have said. “Not to worry. No one controls the Internet and this will change nothing.”

Other voices warn that turning control of the Internet over to some international consortium of private enterprises and governments will be the end of free speech, free access and privacy as China, Russia and other evil-doers lurk in hopes of gaining control over the previously unbridled cyber world.

So what does ICANN control anyway?

According to ICANN, to reach another person or site on the Internet you have to type a unique address into your computer; a name or a number. That address has to be unique for computers 6to know where to find each other.
ICANN is the non-profit organization that coordinates these unique identifiers across the world. Without that coordination there would be duplicate addresses or unreachable addresses and the concept of a global Internet simply could not exist.

ICANN was formed in 1998 and it has participants from all over the world under the stewardship of the U.S. These international participants are tasked with keeping the Internet secure, stable and interoperable.

But ICANN does not control content on the Internet. It doesn’t control access and can’t prevent spam. But it does control the naming system for the growing number of domain names.

ICANN already is international and the process to diminish the U.S. role is well underway.

Some 1,940 people from 150 countries were registered to attend the organization’s 49th meeting held in Singapore late last month. Some attended in person; some via the Internet.

Fadi Chehadé is the president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. He says, “ICANN49 will be remembered as a meeting that, in many ways, ended the early phase of ICANN and brought the organization into a new phase of maturity and responsibility.”

Chehadé said the recent decision by the Obama Administration “to hand us the very ominous responsibility to facilitate and convene the world toward determining how ICANN will be providing assurances of accountability across the board.”

Chehadé says this “ominous” responsibility is a natural progression.

“The U.S. government has modulated its stewardship over time,” he noted. “It has dialed it down and this was just a natural moment for all this to happen, as the U.S. government has said, due to the community’s readiness to actually embrace these responsibilities and establish the appropriate accountability mechanisms to replace the U.S. role.”

Actually, it seems to have more to do with Edward Snowden’s disclosures that no matter who you are, friend or foe,  or where you are, near or far, the U.S. is spying on you. And where better to spy that the Internet.

Go to Google or Facebook and you’ll find advertising suspiciously tailored to your demographics. If you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon, you probably get regular emails with suggestions for things for you to buy that would go with your previous purchases.

Since it’s clear, someone is watching what you do online, it doesn’t take much paranoia or imagination to presume the National Security Agency is involved, especially after Snowden’s revelations.

According to a Rasmussen Reports telephone poll of likely U.S. voters, 61 percent of them are opposed to the United States giving up its last remaining control over the Internet. Only 18 percent of the people polled two weeks ago favored the change with 21 percent not sure.

Former President Bill Clinton shares that opposition.

Speaking at the March 21 Clinton Global Initiative at Arizona State University, Clinton said, “Whatever you think our country’s done wrong, the United States has been by far the country most committed to keeping the Internet free and open and uninterrupted, and a lot of these people who say they want multistakeholder control over domain names and Internet access, what they really do, is want the ability to shut down inconvenient exchanges within their own countries.”

Turkey attempted and failed to block Twitter twittering last week as protestors continue to use social media to challenge repressive regimes.

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and Internet freedom advocate, was on the panel with Clinton.

“There is the First Amendment in the U.S., and there is a culture around free expression, and that’s so strong, that it’s really important,” Wales said.

“I’m on a high level panel at ICANN discussing this issue and one of the things that really concerns me is some of the other people on the panel when they talk about, you know, it’s important that we have respect for local cultures.”

Respect for local cultures would require greater control of content. You dare not criticize certain religious or political leaders in other nations, and if they could control Internet content when that kind of “defamation” appears they would censor it.

But would this change in stewardship give the new international body the means, even if it had the will, to control the Internet.

Certainly is some ways. Right now, China is able to block access in that country to websites located elsewhere advocating freedom for Tibet. But it can’t stop the website from being viewed outside China. However, if it could gain control over domain names, it might be able to block such a site from ever getting an address and ever being seen.

The Commerce Department, which contracts with ICANN, has said it will not accept any model that would include a government to have that power.

But there’s those pesky unintended consequences we never learn to be cautious of.

Once we relinquish the last vestige of control the new organization would be autonomous. No matter how ironclad its founding principles might be and good its intentions, all things change over time.

Here we have the First Amendment to keep change within the guidelines of freedom of speech. That’s not an international attribute.

The NSA has made other nations suspicious of our meddling and spying. We need to address that, not just to sooth international feelings but to protect our own privacy.

But the best rule to apply to the proposed Internet transformation is “if it isn’t broken don’t fix it.”

When free speech is protected worldwide, the Internet can come under international stewardship. But while this nation, with all its warts, is still the best defender of free speech rights the ICANN should continue to operate out of Los Angeles and under minimal U.S. government control.

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