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U.S. to Give Up Key Internet Governance Role

The Obama administration announces plan to give up oversight role over ICANN in favor of some international organization to be named later.


Obama administration officials moved late Friday to end the U.S.’s role in overseeing Internet domain names and addresses, announcing plans to relinquish its role by the end of next year and turning the keys over to the global Internet community.

Commerce department officials announced that the U.S. government would relinquish its role overseeing Internet addresses in favor of a to-be-determined global body.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has managed the use and governance of domain names and Internet addresses for the U.S. government since 1998, when it was awarded the task by the Commerce Department. Based in Los Angeles, ICANN oversees the Internet’s address system and has moved in recent years to open up new domain names.

U.S. officials originally proposed easing out of their oversight function in 1997. That move was opposed by some companies and users concerned about such key Internet functions being taken over by the United Nations or countries like China, which restrict access to information online.

The Obama administration’s move is likely to rile conservatives who have previously expressed concerns about allowing the Internet to be more heavily influenced by foreign governments or controlled by the United Nations. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich immediately blasted the move on Twitter, saying, “Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous.”

U.S. officials didn’t say why they were taking the step now, but they have faced increasing pressure to give up their Internet oversight role in the wake of continuing revelations about the National Security Agency’s mass global Internet surveillance operations.

“We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan,” said Commerce Department Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Lawrence E. Strickling, in a statement.

ICANN president Fadi Chehadé applauded the move and said the organization would invite “governments, the private sector, civil society, and other Internet organizations from the whole world to join us in developing this transition process.”

Commerce Department officials indicated that they wouldn’t give up oversight of ICANN to another government or “inter-governmental organization,” which would include the United Nations.

Whoever takes over would be required to maintain the security and stability of the Internet domain name system, meet the needs of global customers and “maintain the openness of the Internet,” according to a Commerce Department statement.

Many tech companies have been frustrated by the U.S. intelligence community’s surveillance activities, and a few weighed in with cautious support of the plan Friday evening.

Vint Cerf, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist and a former member of ICANN’s board, said in a statement that “the Internet was built to be borderless and this move toward a more multistakeholder model of governance creates an opportunity to preserve its security, stability and openness.”

Yahoo released a statement that it was committed to keeping the Internet secure, open and free. “A more multi-stakeholder, bottom-up governance structure as outlined by the [Commerce Department] will help all parties reach this goal,” a Yahoo spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, Internet provider AT&T Inc. said in a blog post that it supports the effort and believes it will lead “to even more thoughtful discussions” about how to ensure a stable, secure open Internet. But the company added that “we are not kidding ourselves about how important and challenging this task will be.”

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