Surrender of the Naming System
The US government will be giving up control over ICANN, according to reporting in the Wall Street Journal. The move may bring some significant changes to the Internet, the most frightening of which may make it possible for authoritarian regimes to control what websites are allowed to go online.
ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, controls the domain names and addresses of all of the sites online. Right now, it’s controlled by the US, which has followed a policy of allowing sites to go up unfettered and anonymously, in some cases.
This goes against the preferences of some authoritarian regimes, including China and Russia, who would prefer tighter control over what’s allowed to be put up on the web. Obviously, an organization that did not allow anonymous sites to go up would make it much easier for such governments to track down dissidents who put up sites with information damaging to the regime.
A Pattern of Censorship
Many authoritarian regimes already engage in massive censorship of the Internet. During anti-government protests and uprisings in Egypt and Syria, for instance, shutting down Internet access was one of the first things those governments tried to quash their opposition.
Authoritarian governments have long been trying to find ways to give themselves more control over the Internet. The new proposal may do just that, allowing those nations to take control over the Internet naming and numbering of sites by not approving names for organizations that oppose the government in question.
There is some hope here, however. It’s not clear as to whether or not the Obama administration can do this on their own. Congress may be able to force their hand and make them keep control of the organization, preventing it from being taken over by the UN or another organization that might not be as committed to keeping the net free and open.
Conflating an Issue
Part of this move is believed to be in response to the Edward Snowden leaks and international outrage over US surveillance of the Internet. The two issues, as the aforementioned article points out, are entirely separate. In fact, turning over control of ICANN to potentially authoritarian forces would not alleviate the surveillance issue, and may make the Internet even less free.
Because Congress may have an option to act here, you may want to contact your Congressperson to voice your concerns about this rather disturbing surrender of responsibility on the part of the administration.