Last week, 20 people met in London to discuss how they were going to take over control of the internet. (And, in true internet form, they were joined by more than 100 others who attended the proceedings online).
These folks work with the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), an international nonprofit.
ICANN already controls one of most critical parts of the internet, the part that adds computers to the internet by giving them an Internet Protocol address and lets people find websites by typing a URL in a browser (like www.businessinsider.com).
But soon, for the first time ever, ICANN will not be reporting to the U.S. as its supreme boss.
The internet began as a U.S. invention funded by the military’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. has always played a role in overseeing it.
Since the late 1990s, that role was really more like a bodyguard. That’s because in 1998, the Clinton Administration asked the leaders of the internet to create a nonprofit to run the internet in a more global and democratic way (ICANN). The U.S. only kept an “oversight” role of ICANN.
Oversight basically meant making sure ICANN was doing its job of fairly issuing internet addresses and creating policies that kept the internet free and open for people everywhere in the world.
The internet is now a global phenom and the U.S. government would like to get out of the internet bodyguard business. In March, the U.S. said that when the current contract expires in September 2015, it would not be renewing it. Instead it will turn ICANN loose to be its own boss.
That decision was due, at least in part, to political pressure on the White House thanks to the NSA spying scandal, reports Rob Atkinson, president of think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
ITIF Senior Analyst Daniel Castro testified for the U.S. Congress in April about the decision.
He said that the U.S. is running some risks with this decision. It would be removing a safety net. Less democratic nations may now be tempted to simply ignore ICANN’s rules about free and open internet access in their countries, Castro told Business Insider.
“The U.S. provided a bodyguard role, protected the internet so other countries couldn’t come in and mess with it. The U.S. had the final say,” he told us.
Castro also notes that this makes ICANN, an already super-important agency, even more powerful. Over time (perhaps decades), ICANN may become a wholly different beast.
“We often see nonprofit corporations change dramatically over time. Once we sever this link, there’s no coming back,” he says.
But Vint Cerf, the man called the “father of the internet,” says such concerns are overblown.
Cerf, currently employed by Google as vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist, has always been involved with ICANN, was chairman of the board from 2000-2007.
“The U.S. isn’t giving away its authority. And evil superpowers aren’t taking over in response,” he says in just released video about the situation.
“The purity of your internet experience will remain the same. The only thing that’s changing is that we are achieving an even more democratic framework so that internet can remain free and open,” he says.
Time will tell.
The good news is that all of ICANN’s processes are being done in the public eye, with your input welcome. You can follow it from the ICANN’s website and mailing lists.