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Net Brass Calm Solons' Woes Over 'Internet Giveaway'

By John P. Mello Jr.
Apr 4, 2014 10:49 AM PT

The lords of the Internet and the Obama administration this week sought to calm congressional fears that the United States was planning to give away control of the Web to foreign powers.

Net Brass Calm Solons' Woes Over 'Internet Giveaway'

At a public hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fadi Chehadé, president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and Lawrence E. Strickling, U.S. Commerce department assistant secretary for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, promoted a move to get the United States out of the Internet governance business.

"Some have argued that what NTIA is doing is tantamount to giving away the Internet. That could not be further from the truth," Strickling told committe members.

"There is no one party -- government or industry, including the U.S. Government -- that controls the Internet," he continued. "The Internet is a decentralized network of networks. What we have in fact done is demonstrate leadership and strategic vision by laying out a framework with clear conditions to finalize a process that has been ongoing for 16 years."

Triumph of Ideals

What the NTIA is proposing is that ICANN explore the possibility of turning over a set of domain management functions -- called the "Internet Assigned Numbers Authority," or IANA -- to the Internet's stakeholder community.

IANA functions currently are performed by ICANN, and the NTIA's role in the process is largely clerical.

"From the inception of ICANN, the U.S. government and Internet stakeholders envisioned that the U.S. government's role in the IANA functions would be temporary," Strickling said.

At the House hearing, ICANN's Chehadé praised the agency's move.

"NTIA's announcement in fact represents the final triumph of the American ideal for self-governance by the Internet community, free from government control, even our own. Few nations in history have had such vision, magnanimity and consistency," he said.

"NTIA's announcement preserves and prolongs the free and open Internet that has brought so much economic growth and social and cultural development," added Chehadé.

Despite Strickling's and Chehadé's assurances, some legislators remained concerned about the NTIA proposal. In a letter sent to Strickling Wednesday, 35 Republican senators urged caution:

"Replacing NTIA's role with another governmental organization would be disastrous, and we would vigorously oppose such a plan. We must not allow the IANA functions to fall under the control of repressive governments, America's enemies, or unaccountable bureaucrats."

Perception Problem

Strickling addressed those GOP concerns at the public hearing.

"NTIA has repeatedly said that we will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution," he said.

"The ICANN-convened process that is currently under way will help prevent authoritarian countries from exerting too much influence over the Internet by promoting the multistakeholder model that has made the Internet the success it is today," Strickling added.

Much of the concern raised over the NTIA's move has resulted from a misunderstanding of the agency's role in Internet governance.

"For people not involved in day-to-day activities, it's hard to understand that NTIA's role is clerical," said Theresa Swinehart, ICANN senior advisor to the president on strategy.

"It's not defining policy. It's not defining how things operate or how an IP address gets assigned," she told TechNewsWorld. "Part of the problem is a perception issue rather than what the reality is."

Misperception or not, some in Congress are intent on putting the brakes on the IANA transition and have filed a bill to delay it for one year while its implications are studied.

"Holding up this process can be risky," Carolina Rossini, project director for the Internet Governance and Human Rights Program of the New America Foundation, told TechNewsWorld. "It allows authoritarian countries to say the U.S. doesn't want to give up its control of the Internet."

Snowden Factor

The NTIA's decision to transfer IANA functions to the world comes as suspicion of the U.S. is at an all-time high because of whistelblower Edward Snowden's leaking of secret government documents.

"The U.S. has a problem of trust internationally, and Snowden's revelations have contributed to that -- but this move by the NTIA can help build trust by saying the U.S. wants to play by the multistakeholder rules," Rossini said.

Snowden's leaks also may have sped up action on IANA.

"The Snowden revelations accelerated the conversations in regards to spinning off IANA and the U.S. relinquishing it role," Robert Guerra, a senior advisor at The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, told TechNewsWorld.

"Instead of having other governments lead on that conversation, the U.S. has been able to frame the debate and control the conversation in a very smart way," he added.

Snowden's revelations may have played less a role in the NTIA's actions than other factors, though.

"The NTIA has realized that it's time for the community to step up, that it's a good time to move these functions into the hands of the global community," Matthew Shears, director of the Project on Global Internet Policy and Human Rights at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told TechNewsWorld.

"The NTIA is telling other governments that governments should not be driving Internet governance," he pointed out. "They should be a partner and a stakeholder."

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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