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Amid NSA fallout, US to relinquish top internet oversight role

Published time: March 15, 2014 00:55
Michael Buckner / Getty Images for SXSW / AFP

Michael Buckner / Getty Images for SXSW / AFP

American lawmakers announced Friday that the US will give up the federal government’s longstanding oversight of the administration of the Internet, satisfying international critics while potentially frightening some American business leaders.

Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, told Craig Timberg of the Washington Post that US authorities plan to either end or drastically reduce the contract between the US Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The government’s long standing agreement with the California-based non-profit is scheduled to expire next year but may be extended if the plans are not executed in a timely manner.

The timing is right to start the transition process,” Strickling said. “We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.”

The immediate consequence of the decision is unclear, however the federal agencies have been under intense pressure to act in some way since Edward Snowden leaked classified National security agency documents last year indicating that the intelligence agency logs and analyzes much of the communication that is transmitted through US-based websites.

As international complaints became more vocal there was speculation that the United Nations would step into a bigger role of Internet administration. A number of global leaders have advocated such a measure, although the US has never been in favor and the announcement Friday seemed to further minimize that possibility.

The government said it intends to help in the creation of a new oversight body, and that the group must have the full trust of the international community.

I welcome the beginning of this transition process that you have outlined. The global community will be included in full,” Fadi Chehadé, president of ICANN, told the Post. “Nothing will be done in any way to jeopardize the security and stability of the Internet.”

Not all parties are as enthusiastic, though, over concerns that ICANN has not done enough to maintain a secure environment online. The organization’s primary responsibility is to supervise the assignment of online domains. It is currently in the midst of a bulky transition that includes the addition of hundreds of new domains such as .management, .army, and .expert rather than the traditional .com or .org.

A popular criticism accuses ICANN of essentially bending to the concerns of the profitable domain industry rather than regulating it.

To set ICANN so-called ‘free’ is a very major step that should be done with careful oversight,” said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the association of National Advertisers. “We would be very concerned about that step.”

A Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami, told the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer that ICANN has been angling for greater independence from its federal overseers for years. In September 2009 the two parties agreed on an “Affirmation of Commitments,” which gave ICANN more power to govern itself but ensured that the US could intervene in an emergency.

The Affirmation of Commitment was kind of a truce,” he said. “ICANN got most of what it wanted; the Europeans and Japanese got most of what they wanted; the US gave up, you know, a lot, without giving up the core thing – which is that, in case of emergency, it can step in.”

Froomkin went on to tell the magazine that, in the time since that agreement, the NSA revelations have “become a way for a lot of different agendas to meet.”

International leaders will convene in Singapore on March 24 to further deliberate over the future of the Internet.

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