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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: April 14, 2014 NO. 16 APRIL 17, 2014
Who Rules the Internet?
Washington may cede control of global Internet resources as pressure mounts from the international community
By Li Yan

SURVEILLANCE OUTRAGE: People rally in Washington, D.C. in protest of widespread monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency on October 26, 2013 (FANG ZHE)

The U.S. Commerce Department announced its plan to shift responsibility for overseeing the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to "the global multistakeholder community" in March. As one of the major Internet governance organizations, the ICANN is in charge of the management and allocation of global core Internet resources. However, due to its contractual relationship with the U.S. Commerce Department, its legitimacy has long been questioned. Thus, this "power ceding" by the United States has aroused attention from the international community.

When the ICANN was established in 1998, it was agreed that when the time is ripe, the U.S. Government would shift ICANN management to a private sector agency. The Commerce Department declared that now is the time to start the transition process as the ICANN has matured and taken steps in recent years to improve its accountability, transparency and technical competence.

The department said another reason for the transition is that international support continues to grow for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance, as evidenced by the continued success of the Internet Governance Forum and the resilient stewardship of the various Internet institutions. In addition, it raised four principles for the ICANN transition: supporting and enhancing the multistakeholder model; maintaining the security, stability and resiliency of the Internet's domain name system; meeting the needs and expectation of global customers; and maintaining the openness of the Internet.

Forced action

The U.S. Commerce Department announced the ICANN transition plan at this time as its contract with the ICANN expires soon; but on the deeper level, the "power ceding" action was somewhat forced.

In recent years, the struggle over the right to Internet governance among members of the international community has become increasingly heard. Relying on its first mover advantage on Internet technology and dominant position in terms of Internet governance mechanisms, the United States has long controlled the management and allocation of global Internet resources. With world members attaching greater attention to their Internet development strategies, developing countries called for putting world Internet governance under the framework of inter-governmental organizations such as the UN and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). However, developed countries led by the United States strongly opposed the new proposal in the name of maintaining the stable development of the Internet.

The two groups have staged fierce competition over the issue. During the Dubai ITU conference in 2012, the United States refused to sign the new International Telecommunication Regulations as it claimed other countries were using the ITU to intervene in Internet issues and hurt the free development of the Internet. Although the Dubai conference failed to become an intergovernmental "cyber space constitutional convention," it illustrated that most countries wish to change the status quo of the current Internet governance as 89 of the 144 ITU members signed the new regulations.

Since the outburst of the Edward Snowden revelations of widespread U.S. surveillance, Washington has faced increased pressure, even from its allies. Responding to U.S. monitoring, the EU has proposed the European Network and the Brazil-Europe submarine optical cable. The European Commission even made a statement in February that the next two years will be a key period for redesigning the Internet governing landscape and proposed seven reform suggestions including setting a clear timetable for the transition to the ICANN.

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