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Did the US Just ‘Give Away’ Control of the Internet?

The logo of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, London, England.

The logo of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, London, England.

The U.S. government has officially transferred control of the internet address system to an international governing body.

The change took place on October 1.

What will this mean for internet businesses and users all over the world? To answer that question, it is necessary to consider the history of how the public internet developed.

The public internet was still in early development in 1998. That year, the U.S. Department of Commerce took over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This not-for-profit organization is located in Los Angeles, California.

The U.S. government gave ICANN the authority to oversee domain names for websites and individual IP addresses for internet users. This responsibility included assigning the operators of high-level domains, such as .com and .uk.

The contract between the Department of Commerce and ICANN ended on Saturday. This had been planned for a long time. Now a global internet community -- including governments, businesses, technical experts and members of civil society -- oversees ICANN.

Obama administration support

Supporters of the change, including the administration of President Barack Obama, said it made sense to transfer control of ICANN to an international community. They noted that this community is made up of technical experts who helped build the internet. These experts are still responsible for many of its operations.

Opponents argued the transition was a mistake because it could lead to authoritarian governments getting greater control over the internet. They tried to block the ICANN transfer.

Censorship argument

The move was opposed by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz, a Republican Party member, explained his concerns during a hearing last month of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Imagine an internet run like many Middle Eastern countries, that punish what they deem to be blasphemy. Or imagine an internet run like China or Russia, that punish and incarcerate those who engage in political dissent.”

Cruz said not having the government in control of ICANN means the organization is not bound to uphold the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The First Amendment covers basic rights including freedom of speech and religion.

People sit on a bench inside a shopping mall using their mobile devices, in Beijing, China, Aug. 19, 2013.

People sit on a bench inside a shopping mall using their mobile devices, in Beijing, China, Aug. 19, 2013.

“That means when ICANN escapes from government authority, ICANN escapes from having to worry about the First Amendment, having to worry about protecting your rights or my rights.”

Milton Mueller is a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy. He disagrees with those who fear new censorship on the internet.

“What they are saying is that as long as the U.S. has this control, there’s no danger of censorship. And as soon as the US relinquishes this control, then suddenly the internet is in great danger. That is completely false.”

Mueller, who also heads the private Internet Governance Project, says ICANN rules bar the organization from using its powers to control internet content.

Lawrence Strickling is the Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which was overseeing ICANN. He told the Senate hearing the U.S. government never had the power to censor online content.

“The U.S. government has no role whatsoever with respect to who gets domain names at the second level or above, what content they put on those websites, and how it is handled internationally.”

Policies governed by consensus

Mueller said not having ICANN under the control of the U.S. government makes the organization more accountable to all people. This is because member governments must all agree to any policy changes.

“So if China says let’s do something crazy, the United States will say, no, we don’t agree – we’re vetoing that. And that will be that.”

Goran Marby is the President and Chief Executive Officer of ICANN. He said the group is a “nonpolitical technical entity” that has “nothing to do with protecting free speech on the Internet.”

A last-minute legal attempt to block the ICANN transition came last week. Four U.S. states filed a lawsuit, arguing the move was an illegal transfer of government property and therefore could not go forward without the approval of Congress.

A judge in Texas rejected the legal argument and refused to stop the transfer.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn reported this story for VOA Learning English. Additional information came from a story by VOA’s Joshua Fatzick, and a report by Agence France-Presse. Mario Ritter was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Do you think the official transfer of internet control from the U.S. is a good thing? Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

domainn. a group of computers that can be accessed and administered with a common set of rules

IP addressn. code made up of numbers and dots that identifies a particular computer on the internet

civil society – n. a community of citizens and organizations connected by common interests

transition – n. change from one system to another

authoritarian – adj. strict form of government not allowing personal freedoms

blasphemy – n. showing open disrespect to God or religion

incarcerate – v. put in jail

dissent – n. public disagreement with official opinions

relinquish – v. to give up

accountable – adj. being responsible for actions taken

entity – n. something that exists by itself

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