ICANN vs. the World

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Government representatives from around the world sit on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, but as the name implies, their role is only advisory and policy decisions are ultimately made by the ICANN board. Recently, however, governments around the world have been demanding control over ICANN’s actions. There are increasing calls for domain name authority to be transferred to the ITU and the world governments that run it.

U.S. Resisting UN by Leaning on ICANN

Although it has contracted with ICANN to govern the domain name system, the U.S. Government still ultimately controls it. Talking about Internet freedom, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner has said the U.S. is not too impressed with the prospect of UN control.

“We have a range of anxieties about throwing this issue into the United Nations,” said Posner. “We have great trepidation that if this became a UN-sponsored initiative, all the governments that have the greatest interest in regulating and controlling content and protecting against dissident speech in their own countries would be very loud voices.”

You might think, then, that the U.S. would stand up to foreign government and ITU encroachment on ICANN’s authority, but you would be wrong.

Last month the U.S. circulated a proposal that would have essentially given world governments a veto over any new proposed TLD “for any reason.” That proposal was ultimately softened under public pressure, but the Obama Administration continues to place pressure on ICANN to give governments more say over its policy decisions. If it’s too principled about free expression, the logic goes, ICANN and the U.S. may face overwhelming pressure to cede authority to the UN.

Uncertain Future

Internet freedom advocates have vowed to fight to preserve the Internet’s independent, non-governmental governance structure. Writing in Google’s public policy blog, Internet pioneer, former ICANN Chairman, and now Google “Chief Internet Evangelist” Vint Cerf blasted a UN committee’s decision to exclude non-governmental groups from a new working group on Internet governance.

“The current bottoms-up, open approach works—protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation,” he wrote. “Let’s fight to keep it that way.”

Time will tell how this saga turns out, but time may be running out for ICANN. The non-profit’s contract with the U.S. Government is up for renewal in September, and that will likely serve as another pressure point to demand more government control over what names are allowed.

Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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