About eight months ago, in March 2014, the powers that be behind the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) gathered together in Singapore to discuss the transition of stewardship from the U.S. government to a "global multi-stakeholder community." Most of us, apparently lost in a milieu of NCAA March Madness and the anticipation of a flower-full spring, missed the significance of such tidings. That was too bad.
You see ICANN keeps the Internet secure and stable, governing website addresses and Internet traffic. According to its international body of participants, ICANN's purpose is to support "one world, one Internet." That's a pretty huge responsibility, which is why the United States Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) took a seat at the head of the table that oversees ICANN.
Let's be honest here, stewardship of the Internet is the sort of title you never willingly relinquish. That's a no brainer for the United States, right? I mean for crying out loud, the home office is located in Marina Del Rey, California. Only a mad king would sacrifice such a role on his own soil. Can you tell where I am going with this now? The United States government, believe it or not, decided to hand over authority of the nonprofit organization to a non-government entity to be named at a later date.
You see, the fear was that the growing distrust people have expressed with our government concerning the NSA and Edward Snowden's leaks threatened to make ICANN guilty by association. If globally, people voiced such concerns about this neutral and vital organization, then ICANN could lose its power, leading Internet governance down a rabbit hole filled with partisan agendas and sectarian action.
I have a greater fear -- a rudderless World Wide Web and captain-less ICANN. That's why eight months ago I preached for Net Neutrality and for the United States to push such an agenda through as stewards of ICANN. I was overjoyed on Monday to see Obama support half of my wish list when he released an emphatic video statement throwing his administration's full support behind Net Neutrality and asking the FCC to implement strict rules to give weight to such an agenda. Way to go, Mr. President!
Yet there's more to do here. What's interesting about Monday's statement is for all its good, it turns the discussion away from a global perspective to a domestic one. Obama's speech focuses on a free and open Internet within our borders that doesn't speed up or slow down content delivery based on the whims of broadband companies. Take that Netflix with your big ideas of Internet favoritism. At the same time, is this a first step of a philosophy or a final one? I hope the former but fear the latter.
Imagine for a second if every country had its own Internet. The World Wide Web would become anything but, leading to an economic and individual rights disaster that would complicate commerce and freedom around the world.
In 1997, Bill Clinton helped create ICANN within his Green Paper proposal for privatizing the domain name system (DNS). In that regard, our impartiality and creation of checks and balances built into the system have led to a rather impressive run, one that has averted partisan politics and lobbyists and helped keep the Internet as a free platform.
I think that our losing such a leadership role is a mistake for the United States and the principles of Net Neutrality. Yet in the spirit of compromise, I commend Obama for taking a stand within our borders. Now he needs to take the next step.
The hope I have is that whatever new governance structure emerges for ICANN in 2015 turns into a United Nations of Internet protection where the entire world has access to a free Internet. However, if the new structure cannot guarantee Net Neutrality, then I believe the U.S. government should revoke its decision to relinquish leadership. The risk is too great and the ramifications too frightening to idly stand by and allow any other conclusion.