A momentous day in the history of the Internet. On Friday 14 March, the US Government announced it was ready to withdraw from its central role in the management of the Internet provided future governance arrangements ensured an open Internet free from the control of governments.
The Internet may not have been invented by Al Gore, but it definitely began in the United States and had its origins in research programs funded by the US Department of Defence and later other agencies.
This led to the US Government retaining a central, but increasingly symbolic, role in the administration of the Internet.
Right at the heart of the system is a series of address books – the Domain Name System (DNS). They make sure that addresses in words www.aph.gov.au or [email protected] will actually connect to the machines that host their web content or mail servers. These machines have IP addresses – long, unique, strings of numbers - and when a message is sent to one of them each packet of data making up the message must have the right digital address.
The most important address book, handling the top level domains (TLDs) is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) through what is called the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) function which manages the root zone (or the highest part of DNS hierarchy). This function operates under a contract with US Department of Commerce.
The function of the US Department of Commerce in the IANA contract has been largely symbolic, but it is a big symbol. It gave important legitimacy to ICANN at the outset and provided reassurance that somebody was keeping an eye on ICANN – a multi-stakeholder institution with representatives drawn from the Internet industry, academia, not for profits and of course governments. ICANN operates in a very consultative manner seeking consensus before making decisions about changes to the root zone.
While largely symbolic the US Government’s role has aroused more and more controversy and from some quarters animosity. How could the Internet belong to the world and yet at its very heart be overseen by a contract with the US Government?
A number of Governments including China and Russia have argued, quoting from a recent submission, that “policy authority for Internet-related public issues is the sovereign right of States, which have rights and responsibilities for international Internet-related public policy issues” and so have supported the International Telecommunication Organisation (ITU) taking responsibility for the management of the Internet, stepping into not simply the shoes of the US Department of Commerce but potentially of ICANN itself.
The Snowden revelations about the NSA of course have nothing to do with the administration of the DNS root zone whatsoever but they added to the anxiety about the US Government remaining at the centre of the Internet and gave considerable momentum to the argument that the governance of the Internet should move to a formal inter-governmental level.
Of course there is a lot more to the governance of the Internet than ICANN let alone the administration of the DNS, but many have been concerned that the central role of the US Department of Commerce was creating the impression that the US Government had vastly more involvement and control in the management of the Internet than the very little it, in fact, had.
So today the US Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intention to end its contractual involvement with ICANN and it asked ICANN to convene the global Internet community to develop a proposal to transition away from the current US Government centred model of governance.
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the United States Department of Commerce Larry Strickling, with whom I have been discussing this move this week, laid down some very clear conditions. Before any transition proposal would be acceptable to the US and allow it to exit, it must not only have broad support across the global Internet community but it must be one which supports and enhances the multi-stakeholder model and in particular must not involve the replacement of the US Government with a government-led or inter-governmental organization, like the ITU or the UN.
Mr Strickling also said any new structure must maintain the security, stability and resilience of the Domain Name System, meet the needs of global customers and partners of that system and above all maintain the openness of the Internet.
Mr Strickling is confident that ICANN, beginning with a conference in Singapore on 23 March, will be able to mobilise the global Internet community to find the right transition.
As I noted in a speech on this topic on March 5, the Australian Government is absolutely committed to supporting an open Internet which is administered by multi stakeholder organisations like ICANN and NOT by governments whether in the form of consortia or multilateral organisations like the ITU or the UN.
The Internet is the most remarkable invention of our times and while it had its origins in research contracts with the US Government its growth, its dynamism, its resilience have all been the result of collaborative efforts by the wide Internet community not government regulation or fiat.
While it is all too common to complain about the US Government role in the Internet the truth is that the world owes the United States an extraordinary debt not just for giving birth to the Internet, but above all for giving it the freedom to develop into the extraordinary global platform it has become today.
The IANA contract with the US Department of Commerce expires in September 2015 and today I assured the President of ICANN, Mr Fadi Chehade, that the Australian Government will provide all the support it can to ICANN’s efforts to develop a structure of governance that will meet the US Department of Commerce’s vitally important conditions of removing itself from the IANA arrangements at the heart of the Internet.
A key question is whether the exit of the US Department of Commerce creates a gap that needs to be filled. Is ICANN now sufficiently representative, sufficiently trusted that it can manage the DNS root zone, allocate top level domains and country top level domains without oversight other than that which comes internally from its board and the global constituencies they represent?
On the other hand, while the prospective exit of the US Government will please many governments and indeed the technical organisations associated with ICANN as their statements today attest , it is true that for many people and their businesses the US Government’s role was most reassuring – having a power, held in reserve no doubt, that could if necessary step in to protect the public interest.
There is a lot of work to do to support ICANN in transitioning to a new model and the Australian Government, committed as it is to a multi-stakeholder system of governance, will work with the Australian and global Internet community including other governments to ensure that the Internet remains free, stable and resilient and continues to be a powerful platform for freedom around the world.