Leadership

ICANN Goes It Alone: What's Next for the Internet?

By / Mar 20, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The nonprofit contracted by the U.S. government to manage the internet’s infrastructure will be taking over the reins permanently and moving toward a multistakeholder model. Here’s what that means for the internet as a whole.

The U.S. government is breaking up with the internet, and both say it’s for the best.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit that has shepherded the net’s basic operation for more than 15 years with the approval of the U.S. government, is on the road to going solo. That raises big questions about the future of the organization and how it governs the internet. More details:

A short history: ICANN was organized in 1998 to manage the then-budding protocols behind the scenes. Previously, the network was controlled strictly by the federal government—with one computer scientist in particular, the University of Southern California’s Jon Postel, playing a lead role in administering the internet’s organizational structure before his death in 1998. Since then, ICANN has been under a formal contract with the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). It has retained tight ties with the government ever since, even as the internet has expanded its global reach and become a major economic driver. And in recent years, disclosures about extensive government surveillance in the name of national security—including through online means—have brought the organization under increased scrutiny.

What’s happening now? The government’s contract with ICANN is set to expire in 2015—and NTIA has suggested that a new governance model is needed, one with multiple stakeholders that touches both the public and private sectors. “I want to make clear that we will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or intergovernmental solution,” NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling told IDG News Service. (In other words, the agency doesn’t want ICANN to become like the United Nations.) The move follows a statement in October by ICANN, the World Wide Web Consortium, and a number of international registry organizations that criticized “pervasive monitoring and surveillance” of the internet and called for the “evolution of global multistakeholder internet cooperation.” NTIA’s move is the first step in that direction, but the agency will maintain its current role until the changeover occurs.

Next steps: Next week, some of the first formal steps in this transition will take place at ICANN’s Singapore meeting March 23-27. In an interview with IDG News Service, ICANN CEO and President Fadi Chehadé said that such a change was always likely to occur at some point, as the NTIA contract with ICANN was always meant to be temporary. But, he noted, whatever happens must have broad support from the internet community. “This is historic, because it marks a point of maturity in ICANN, the ICANN community, and the global internet community,” Chehadé told the news service. “The decision of the United States government to do this at this point is truly a triumph of the multistakeholder model.”

News of the transition has been well received by the internet community, with one of the network’s earliest architects, Vinton Cerf, offering his support in a comment to the Wall Street Journal.

“The internet was built to be borderless, and this move toward a more multistakeholder model of governance creates an opportunity to preserve its security, stability, and openness,” said Cerf, now a Google vice president.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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