As historic documents go, the statement issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce on June 30 was low-key even by American standards of informality. No flowery language, no fountain-penned signatures, no Great Seal of the United States — only 331 words on a single page. But the simplicity of the presentation belied the importance of the content, which was Washington’s attempt to settle a crucial problem of twenty-first-century global governance: Who controls the Internet?
Any network requires some centralized control in order to function. The global phone system, for example, is administered by the world’s oldest international treaty organization, the International Telecommunication Union, founded in 1865 and now a part of the UN family. The Internet is different. It is coordinated by a private-sector nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which was set up by the United States in 1998 to take over the activities performed for 30 years, amazingly, by a single ponytailed professor in California.
The controversy over who controls the Internet has simmered in insular technology-policy circles for years and more recently has crept into formal diplomatic talks. Many governments feel that, like the phone network, the Internet should be administered under a multilateral treaty. ICANN, in their view, is an instrument of American hegemony over cyberspace: its private-sector approach favors the United States, Washington retains oversight authority, and its Governmental Advisory Committee, composed of delegates from other nations, has no real powers.
This discontent finally boiled over at the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society, the first phase of which was held in Geneva in December 2003 (the second phase is set for November in Tunis). Brazil and South Africa have criticized the current arrangement, and China has called for the creation of a new international treaty organization. France wants an intergovernmental approach, but one involving only an elite group of democratic nations. Cuba and Syria have taken advantage of the controversy to poke a finger in Washington’s eye, and even Zimbabwe’s tyrant, Robert Mugabe, has weighed in, calling the existing system of Internet governance a form of neocolonialism.
How did such a welcomed technology become the source of such discord? Everyone understands that the Internet is crucial for the functioning of modern economies, societies, and even governments, and everyone has an interest in seeing that it is secure and reliable. But at the same time, many governments are bothered that such a vital resource exists outside their control and, even worse, that it is under the thumb of an already dominant United States. Washington’s answer to these concerns — the Commerce Department’s four terse paragraphs, released at the end of June, announcing that the United States plans to retain control of the Internet indefinitely — was intended as a sort of Monroe Doctrine for our times. It was received abroad with just the anger one would expect, setting the stage for further controversy. […]
By the mid-1990s, however, it became clear to the small coterie of officials in the United States and elsewhere who were aware of the matter that the Internet could no longer be administered by a single individual. But who or what would replace him?
After a bitter series of negotiations among the business community, governments, and nongovernmental organizations worldwide, the Clinton administration helped broker a compromise and established ICANN in 1998. Because the United States’ hands-off approach had allowed the Internet to flourish, it seemed appropriate that the new organization be based in the private sector. This would make it more responsive, more flexible, and less prone to bureaucratic and political squabbling. The negotiations were so tense that Postel suffered a heart attack as they were ending and never lived to see the birth of the successor organization he was instrumental in creating.
ICANN was an experiment, a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder approach toward managing a global resource on a nongovernmental basis. Indeed, in its early days it was often touted as a model for other issues that require the unified action of numerous groups from government, industry, and civil society, such as treating communicable diseases or handling climate change. ICANN’s private-sector status, moreover, has helped keep the Internet free from political interference. When in 2002 members of the Federal Communications Commission were asked by their counterparts at China’s Ministry of Information Industry why Taiwan had been allocated its own two-letter domain (“.tw”), the commissioners could pass the buck to ICANN and breathe a sigh of relief.
Yet from the start, ICANN was plagued by controversy. Critics charged that it lacked transparency, accountability, and legitimacy. Civil-society groups felt it was in the pocket of the domain name registration businesses it was designed to regulate. Businesses felt it was overly governmental. And foreign governments felt powerless before it. As many developing countries woke to the Internet’s importance, it struck them as outrageous that the Internet was essentially run by a nonprofit corporation whose 15-person board of directors was accountable to the attorney general of the state of California and under the authority of the U.S. government. Even the U.S. Congress criticized it, hauling the group into tense hearings regularly. Half a decade after it was founded with such optimism, the organization was mockingly referred to in tech-policy circles as “ICANN’T.”
All this came to a head in 2003, during the preparatory meetings for the World Summit on the Information Society. Washington had been able to deflect criticism of ICANN in bilateral discussions but proved unable to block the momentum for change at the multilateral level. Telecom-policy officials mildly supportive of ICANN were replaced by senior representatives from foreign ministries, officials less familiar with the details of Internet governance but more experienced in challenging U.S. power. Watching the United States go to war in Iraq despite global opposition, these diplomats saw ICANN as yet another example of American unilateralism. What would prevent Washington, they argued, from one day choosing, say, to knock Iran off the Internet by simply deleting its two-letter moniker, “.ir,” from the domain name system? Surely the Internet ought to be managed by the international community rather than a single nation.
Governments worldwide sought to dilute the United States’ control by calling for a new arrangement, and in November 2004 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed a 40-person working group to address questions of Internet governance. Washington had planned to grant ICANN autonomy from its oversight in 2006. But the more other countries clamored for power, the more the United States reconsidered its policy of relinquishing control. Ultimately, it came down to national interest: Washington, with so much at stake in the Internet’s continuing to function as it had, decided it was not prepared to risk any changes. So, as the UN working group was preparing to release its report (which, unsurprisingly, favored transferring authority over the Internet to the UN), the U.S. government made a preemptive strike. In the brief Commerce Department statement, Washington announced its decision: the United States would retain its authority over ICANN, period.