Ahead of the IANA Transition, the Backlash Ramps Up

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The private, U.S.-based company that controls how the internet is named will cede its longstanding control in about six weeks, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration confirmed this week.

“Barring any significant impediment, NTIA intends to allow the [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority] functions contract to expire as of October 1,” Lawrence Strickling of the NTIA on wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

The transition comes before the U.S. presidential election, and so could become an important issue: Right now, many blame President Barack Obama for illegitimately pushing the decision through.

In its place, a multi-stakeholder, global consortium will oversee domain names, and will have final say about future websites’ addresses and suffixes. Many non-U.S. citizens are celebrating this decision, but Senator Ted Cruz and other politicians, along with internet freedom advocacy groups, are threatening to sue to impede the transition. Opponents call it an “internet giveaway” and worry it will lead to censorship by foreign governments of people who post online.

Up until October 1, critics will write letters, craft sensationalized YouTube videos, and go before Congress. But on that day, the contract will expire, and domain-name overseer responsibilities will transfer. The private, multinational group — read Stuart Brotman’s Brookings paper on what that looks like — will take over.

The NTIA and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — ICANN — have presided over the internet’s domains since the late ‘90s. ICANN and NTIA make the decisions about the domain name system. NTIA is a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and for over a decade it’s had the final say. These organizations together ensure that you don’t need to type in an IP address to visit a website. Instead, you can just type the website’s name followed by a NTIA- and ICANN-approved suffix. Those suffixes — dot-govs and dot-orgs and so forth — all are reviewed and approved or denied by these two groups. Critics in part fear that abandoning control will endanger America’s valued dot-gov and dot-mil suffixes, and that this represents a national security issue.

The organizations also ensure that there are no figurative crossed wires, and therefore that the internet continues to run as we’ve come to expect. Some describe it as the maintenance of the internet’s “phone book.” The particulars of how it works get complicated, fast, but that’s because — thanks to these groups — citizens haven’t needed to know. The internet just… works.

The original agreement, back in 1998, gave the U.S. temporary control. This transition has been underway ever since, and the Obama administration in 2014 sought to finalize the transfer, but Congress has repeatedly halted it, citing misappropriation of taxpayer dollars. Now that the transition is underway once more, and with apparent vigor, various individuals and groups are attempting to delay it yet again. The fear is not that the transition will break the internet, but that — as the agreement currently stands — it puts internet freedom at risk. And given that the decision, if it were to go through, would bypass Congress, the checks and balances system would suffer yet more.

The foremost coalition opposing the move, organized by TechFreedom, penned an open letter to Congress, and their fears are summarized here:

“We agree that Internet governance should work from the bottom up, driven by the global community of private sector, civil society and technical stakeholders. But that ‘multistakeholder’ model is fragile. Without robust safeguards, Internet governance could fall under the sway of governments hostile to freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”

If the transition were delayed one more year, these authors feel, then the agreement could be made more airtight. They believe that only if that happens will the internet’s freedom remain untarnished.