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Who'll control the Internet's tubes?

When the issue is net neutrality, Republicans say they're afraid of the federal government having control over the Internet. On ICANN, the fear is reversed.
**FILE**Internet users work at computers at the Philadelphia Public Library in Philadelphia on May 31, 2002.
**FILE**Internet users work at computers at the Philadelphia Public Library in Philadelphia on May 31, 2002.
When the issue is net neutrality, congressional Republicans say they're afraid of the federal government having control over the future of the Internet. When the issue is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), those same GOP lawmakers say they're afraid of the federal government losing control over the future of the Internet.

The House voted Thursday to delay the Obama administration's plans to relinquish the United States' oversight of fundamental Internet functions. In a 245-177 vote -- including 17 Democrats -- the House approved a Republican amendment that would halt the administration's plans to end its contract with the company that coordinates Internet addresses.... [Rep. John Shimkus' (R-Ill.)] amendment would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study before the Commerce Department can proceed with its plans to hand off its oversight role of the system.

As political debates go, this one's been lurking in the background the last few months, with complaints largely limited to conservative circles. Fox News helped get the ball rolling in March -- viewers were told that rascally President Obama chose unilaterally to "give away" the Internet -- but it's been percolating ever since. (Republican support for the measure yesterday was unanimous.)
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned supporters, "Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the Internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous." Senate Republicans appear eager to follow in the House's lead, with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), among others, warning that we may be "putting ourselves in a situation where censorship-laden governments like China or Russia could take a firm hold on the Internet itself."
A veteran of the Bush/Cheney administration, who apparently wasn't kidding, compared the move to Carter and the Panama Canal.
There's an interesting story here, but the whining and fear-mongering is wildly unnecessary.
Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard, recently had a great piece explaining the policies surrounding the Internet's plumbing.

On March 14, the U.S. government announced that it would seek to relinquish a privileged role in the management of Internet names and numbers. An organization called ICANN -- the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- is to continue doing what it's doing without maintaining an ongoing contract with the Department of Commerce to do it. And what does ICANN do? It helps keep IP addresses in order, ensuring that each address -- used to let parties on the Internet identify one another -- is not assigned more than once. And it facilitates the addition of "top level domains," those suffixes like .com, .org, .uk, and more recently, .clothing, which, with a concatenation of names to their left, become the names for nearly all online destinations, including A receding role for the U.S. government has been anticipated for over a decade, and the move is both wise and of little impact.

Zittrain's piece explains all of this in helpful detail -- it's well worth reading -- but I'd just emphasize that the transition away from U.S. control was planned for and inevitable. It's not that Americans have done a poor job -- on the contrary, we've been fine stewards -- but the phase out was baked into the cake in the late '90s. By all indications, the system is stable and ready to lose the Commerce Department's training wheels.
What about the future implications? The perceived dangers aren't quite what they're cracked up to be.

First, the U.S. government control so far has had minimal impact on how ICANN has operated. For example, there was some consternation within the U.S. Congress about the creation of a .xxx domain, which was within ICANN's purview to create. This likely delayed .xxx, but it didn't stop it. And that accords with the government's role in ICANN's creation: Had it tried to be more heavy-handed, it's not clear that it could have pulled off the move to a new IANA. Whoever newly contracts with ICANN for these IANA functions -- yes, once again the U.S. government has vaguely called for a new organization to step up -- will be similarly constrained. So there's no obvious place for Russia or China to take control. Second, the plausible ways in which ICANN could trample free speech are narrow. ICANN does not itself hand out domain names -- it only designates who runs each list of names. ICANN does not directly "shut down" names or otherwise deal in individual decisions. So far it has established procedures in some domains for trademark-like disputes to play out. But these are only over domain names themselves -- not over claims of behavior taking place more generally on a Web site. Register and be prepared to justify your action through an ICANN-approved process; sell fake Gap clothing on your website and that process won't have anything to say about it. Any attempt to impose broad-based censorship through domain name assignments would be met with stiff resistance by the operators of domain name registries, and ultimately by the Internet Service Providers who choose to consult those registries for information about what destination each name represents. Anyone trying to tighten the screws too much will simply strip them.

Whether Congress will successfully prevent the transfer is unclear -- we don't yet know what the Senate plans to do and/or how much the White House cares -- but in the meantime, the freak-out is excessive.