Late Wednesday September 28 the U.S. Congress passed a short-term funding bill to avert another government shutdown. The bill did not include any restrictions, prohibitions or riders related to the ICANN transition. As an organization that has been consistently advocating the end of unilateral U.S. government control for more than a decade, the Internet Governance Project enthusiastically welcomes this historic event.
In the debate over the future of ICANN, one of the most important points about the U.S. plan to end its control almost got lost in the noise.
The transition is not “giving the Internet away,’ neither to foreign governments nor to ICANN. It is giving the Internet to the people – the people who use it, operate its infrastructure and run its services. The people of the Internet – the ‘global multi-stakeholder community’ to which the Commerce Department referred in March 2014 when it kicked off the stewardship transition – are not confined to the United States. They are everywhere. If freedom entails the right to self-governance, then the transition promotes and advances it.
The Internet protocols were created 35 years ago to provide universal compatibility in data communications. In pursuit of that goal, the software was designed in a way that simply did not refer to national boundaries or governmental jurisdictions. As one Internet engineer put it, “it’s not being rude, they just weren’t relevant.”
To remain true to that vision, a nongovernmental, global regime for governing the domain name system (DNS) was created. That approach was favored by the Internet technical community, most internet businesses, and by most Republicans and Democrats for the past two decades. The idea behind ICANN was to keep policy making for the global DNS out of the hands of governments and intergovernmental organizations so that the rules governing domains would not be fragmented by jurisdiction and burdened by geopolitics and censorship. The only way to do that was to create a new, transnational regime based on non-state actors, with a balanced scheme of representation for individuals, civil society, business and other stakeholder groups. It has not been an easy task to create this regime, but now it is done. Or rather, this is the end of the beginning.
The rough ride through Congress is Exhibit A in the case for ending unilateral U.S. control. ICANN and Internet’s naming infrastructure became a domestic political football, drawn into short-term partisan politics, special-interest funding, opportunistic shifts of position, a means of whipping up nationalistic hubris and xenophobic fears. Meanwhile, the 91% of the rest of the world’s internet users who are not in the U.S. stood by, unrepresented and helpless.
But it is also true that this innovation in global governance could have come only from this country. Only the U.S. had the vision and values to propose a form of Internet governance led by non-state actors. The implicit ideal behind the new regime was the principle of popular sovereignty, the original concept behind democratic national governments but extended to a global scale. Americans should be proud of that accomplishment as reflecting – and expanding into a new, globalized realm – the revolutionary principles of self-governance upon which it was founded. The ICANN transition is the final step in the institutionalization of this nongovernmental regime.
Critics who claimed that the transition would “give the internet to foreign governments” were not just wrong, they were twisting the transition into its opposite. In 2005, during the World Summit on the Information Society, authoritarian governments were very hostile to the idea of ICANN. They knew how revolutionary this new institution was. They wanted governments to be in control. China, Brazil, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and even some European governments thought that public policy for the Domain Name System should be made by nation states, not by a new, open, nongovernmental agency. When Senator Cruz and his supporters called for U.S. control of the Internet they sound a lot like those governments. Their logic and their arguments were the same.
They didn’t seem to understand that you cannot give special powers over a global communications infrastructure to one government without giving all other governments the idea that they should also share some control. Sovereign equality is a basic principle of international relations. If the opponents of the transition had succeeded in blocking it based on claims that the Internet belongs to the US, they would have pushed us back into the world of nation-states, profoundly undermining the cause of Internet freedom.
Just as the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries made it clear that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” we must now be prepared to keep ICANN, Inc. under constant scrutiny. Its new accountability arrangements have yet to be tested, and simply will not work unless the engaged community insists that the corporation adheres to them.