Who Rules the World Wide Web?

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, (ICANN), essentially the internet’s address book, is embracing new reforms. For the first time, it will expose itself to the accountability of international groups after being under the control of US regulators since it was first created in 1998. This comes after two years of negotiations and means that it will be managed by an independent global body. New bylaws, as well as a new chief executive (replacing the current chief Fadi Chehadé), will also be a part of the new changes.

Outsiders probably will not notice any significant difference to their internet experience. Yet such an event does have a great importance. ICANN plays a pivotal role in what exists online; networks need domain names and IP (internet protocol) addresses in order to work and connect. Deleting a domain name will result in the website previously using it to cease to exist.

With such responsibilities and control, underlying battles have taken place concerning who should handle and assign domain names. When first established, it was decided that ICANN would operate under a licence issued by the US Department of Commerce, and that the non-profit would conduct its work with the help of volunteers to complete various tasks. At the time, this made sense; much of the internet traffic in 1998 originated from the US. But as the internet became a global resource, more scepticism grew around the American oversight of the organisation. The revelations of the NSA and its cyber espionage did not do much to help, even though the spying programs had nothing to do with ICANN. Some have also argued that with ICANN essentially being held by the leash of US regulators, it was more likely to favour American interests. This has seemed especially plausible now that domain names have generated such economic value, as companies scramble to obtain the relevant names for their websites. Though this has not been the case; the group did decline to give internet retail giant Amazon the ‘.amazon’ domain after the likes of Brazil and Peru argued that a private company should not be able to obtain a name relating to a specific location in their country.

Nevertheless, ICANN submitted to the US government a plan to be put into action in September when the licence expires. If approved, which seems likely since the government agreed with the idea back in March 2014, ICANN will undergo the process of becoming fully independent. A number of supporting organisations and advisory committees, representing an array of interest groups, will play a role in the processes and tasks conducted by ICANN .

The potential difficulty, however, may be getting the plan through Congress. Many Republicans loathe the idea of setting ICANN free, arguing that it would undermine American interests. “What is the global internet community that Obama wants to turn the internet over to? This risks foreign dictatorships defining the internet,” said Newt Gingrich, a former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz has been equally sceptical.

But the whole scenario presents an interesting question; should organisations like ICANN be truly independent of any government oversight to be left accountable to the rest of world?

Yes…No…Maybe…

Letting a wider range of people have an influence in an organisation like ICANN seems like a good idea. Governments which seek to proceed with their own internet governance are not likely to consider the needs of other countries. The internet knows no boundaries and operates on a global scale. Thus, it makes sense to have organisations like ICANN operate on a global level, with multiple stakeholders making their opinions known and encouraging an unbiased, as well as a more democratic, process. 

However, such a structures can easily lead to conflict. ICANN may only take on the views of a government advisory council if no other government objects to the proposals. Achieving such a wide consensus may be hard to come by. China’s President Xi Jinping, speaking at the World Internet Conference in 2015, called for ‘cyber sovereignty’, emphasising the need for each country to respect the right of others to manage the internet in a way that would suit their priorities and interests. Such a stance would make sense since China is known for its Great Firewall, blocking off connections from other countries and closely monitoring everything going through their own tubes.

The underlying notion is that no one organisation truly rules the world wide web. ICANN’s independence may be a sign that, due to the immense growth of the internet worldwide, it would perhaps be more suitable for similar organisations to be run free of the control of individual governments.

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