Late last week, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that it intended to “transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community.”
In its press release, the administration said that it would ask ICANN, the Los Angeles, Calif., based nonprofit responsible for making sure that the names we use to identify websites are consistent everywhere, to develop a proposal that would transition control of the organisation away from the NTIA to a more international body.
It all sounds very bureaucratic, and if you don’t know who all of these organisations are, it’s hard to make sense of what’s happening. Below, we’ve broken it down to the essentials of what you need to know.
What is the NTIA? Does it control the Internet?
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is an agency within the United States Department of Commerce. It’s responsible for advising the President on telecommunications and information policy issues, which generally means promoting policies that expand broadband coverage.
But along with those important duties, it also handles the Department of Commerce’s contract with ICANN, which gives them oversight of the nonprofit and generally speaks on behalf of the U.S. regarding ICANN policy.
So what is ICANN? Does it control the Internet?
ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is a nonprofit organisation created in 1998 to handle numerous Internet-related tasks.
Primarily, it was created to take up oversight of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, the organisation that handles allocating the globally unique identifying names and numbers that make the Internet as we know it so easy to use. For example, typing in “businessinsider.com” takes you to this site, not some shady knockoff pretending to be this site located on a server closer to your home.
With that said, ICANN doesn’t exactly “control” the Internet. It can’t take a site down. It doesn’t regulate content on websites. So in the sense that most people think of when talking about “control” of the Internet, ICANN has much less power than, say, the FBI, or Comcast, or a company that provides servers to host websites.
Wait, so what control are people worried about the U.S. giving up then?
As Brendan Greeley at Businessweek points out, the biggest stakeholders pushing for less control over the international system of domain names by the U.S. are China and Russia.
They don’t exactly have the best records on freedom of speech or the press. They would like the oversight provided by the NTIA today to be passed on to an agency in the United Nations, like the International Telecommunications Union. Greeley explains:
“The only stakeholders that matter, they are saying, are countries. Right now, China can prevent users inside its borders from viewing a website that promotes Tibetan separatism. But it can’t prevent that website from registering a domain name. It would very much like to, under the argument that the site threatens China’s domestic sovereignty.”
So countries like China and Russia will have more power now?
Maybe. According to The New York Times, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Lawrence E. Strickling has said that the NTIA would not accept a proposal that replaced the Commerce Department’s oversight with a government-led or intergovernmental organisation.
Whatever replaces the system we have today will undoubtedly involve input from a number of countries. But it will also have more input coming in from the private sector too, which advocates of the change say should counteract the influence of countries looking to maintain their “sovereignty” by making dissenting voices harder to find on the Internet.
What problems should we watch for then? When is this all happening?
The Wall Street Journal’s Gautham Nagesh brings up an example of where this change could affect businesses in the United States: copyright.
Intellectual property law is complex enough when you’re just looking inside U.S. borders. When you look at the international scene, it gets even crazier: companies often copyright names for products in one country that are taken for related products in others, and then have to make agreements (or fight) to use names elsewhere.
Until we know what the new oversight system will look like, we have no idea how ICANN might handle domain registrations with conflicting international intellectual property claims.
The stakeholders involved have quite a bit of time to plan this all out: the contract between the Department of Commerce and ICANN doesn’t expire until September 2015.
Here’s the bottom line.
Right now, the United States Department of Commerce is accepting proposals for new systems of oversight for ICANN, the nonprofit that has the final say over the names and behind-the-scenes protocols that make it so easy to access sites on the Web.
Russia and China would like the United Nations to have more oversight so that they can have a new way to censor dissent on the web. But don’t worry, this won’t mean American websites will suddenly be under Chinese oversight.
The U.S. government has said that it won’t accept proposals that simply hand power over to other governments — they want the private sector to have some say.
In September 2015, the contract between the Department of Commerce and ICANN comes to an end, meaning that the United States should begin to transition out of its oversight role by next year.
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