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Mark A. Shiffrin and Avi Silberschatz Headshot

Abandoning Internet Oversight

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The U.S. Department of Commerce has announced that the United States has
agreed to give up oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names
and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization that was created by the
Clinton Administration 11 years ago to loosely regulate the protocols of the
Internet. In closed door discussions, without any transparency or the kind
of Senate review given to even a minor treaty, the Obama Administration
literally signed away, to risky international control, America's role of
assuring the freedom of the World Wide Web. What's next is too important
for behind-the-scenes decision making.

ICANN has been serving the Internet community as an honest
broker, and U.S. oversight has been loose at best, with America standing in
the wings as a guardian of online freedom. With international oversight of
ICANN, we do not have any guarantees that we will be free of the
heavy-handed abuse that has characterized other increasingly politicized and
balkanized international forums. We have given a blank check to faceless
international bureaucrats.

The world has become heavily reliant on the Web for commerce,
social interaction, communications, and command and control of both
governments and infrastructure. It also serves as a tool for free expression
in oppressive societies, as recently seen to great effect in Iran in the
aftermath of the disputed Ahmadinejead re-election. What will an
internationalized ICANN do under pressure of an oppressive Iranian regime
that ties the Internet to oil? Will Internet domains of any countries be
shut down? For instance, will an internationalized ICANN decide that Israel
should be excluded from the Internet, or that the Internet will not be
available in Israel's disputed territories? Will ICANN decide which
government should control the Web in a country like Honduras where there is
a power dispute?

These concerns are not idle speculation. Internet freedom is
essential to modern life. Tinkering with the governance of the Internet can
undermine freedom itself, the issue of American responsibility for governing the Internet
has not ended with the ICANN agreement negotiated by Commerce. The next
major test will be deciding the fate of the Internet Assigned Numbers
Authority (IANA) -- the nuts-and-bolts Internet administrator that runs the
protocols that allow the Internet to function. IANA works in the background
like the air traffic controllers who ensure that planes don't run into each
other traveling between myriad points across the world. The contract with
the Commerce Department under which ICANN has administered IANA will expire
in 2011.

IANA's predecessor had been the University of Southern
California, operating under a contract from the Defense Department, which
had created the Internet infrastructure. With ICANN under loose supervision
of Commerce, this arrangement worked just fine, Now that ICANN is under
supervision of who-knows-who, we simply can no longer be so sure that this
trusted operation will continue.

The Internet is a crucial part of the world's economic and
national security infrastructure. America, and the rest of the free world,
cannot afford to trust the Web's future to the international community,
where Libya and Iran get the same vote as the United States as if the world
were a democracy. We cannot trust that we will continue to have a Web of
the free if it is ultimately subject to the control of tyrants with no
interest in shepherding freedom.

Before the ICANN mistake is compounded by IANA also being
abandoned to international control, it is time for Congress to explicitly
condition any IANA contract to Congressional approval, at least approval by
the Senate as is required for a treaty.

When the United States ceded control of the Panama Canal, it was
by treaty, with full discussion, transparency, and review. There was a
debate, not a quiet fait accompli. This time, the United States ceded
control of the Internet quietly, without a treaty, without a full
discussion, without transparency, and without review. This was a
dead-of-night and unilateral decision of government policymakers in the
Executive Branch, and they might be turning ICANN from a trusted arbiter
into something with as much integrity as the International Olympic
Committee.

Even if the ICANN decision cannot be undone, American oversight
of IANA in implementing Internet protocols must not be abandoned in order to
maintain the security and honest enforcement of liberties that is assured by
the United States as an honest broker. As any smart engineer would tell
you, If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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