The loss of US supervision could open the door to authoritarian governments censoring parts of the Internet.
ICANN, the organization responsible for registering all Internet domain names, could be free of US government supervision in eight months. While the government is not directly involved in ICANN’s decisions, it has an oversight role to ensure correct procedures are followed when top-level domains (TLDs) are assigned and also to protect the open Internet.
ICANN was incorporated in California in 1998 and, in 2006 signed a new agreement with the US Department of Commerce (the owner of the DNS system) to start its transition to the private sector. Now, 10 years later, the Obama administration is ready to give up the contract. This means that ICANN will no longer have government protection to be the sole coordinator of domain names and that competition can enter the ring.
According to published reports, Fadi Chehade, chief executive of ICANN, said the end of the US government contract and oversight will not change how the Internet works, and in fact will help reassure users, businesses and governments about its integrity.
ICANN will deliver the final transition plan to the government in February and, if the administration approves it, then the contract between ICANN and the US government will just expire Sept. 30, Chehade said. .
ICANN officials say they're not concerned about the organization losing its control over the Internet, but some members of the US Congress have raised concerns that the Obama administration is "giving away" the Internet, and that other governments may take control of parts of it. Pundits warn that authoritarian governments could seize control and censor websites.
The TLD controversy
The concerns stem from controversy swirling around ICANN's 2012 decision to allow anyone to buy a TLD and to resell the registrations of the domain without supervision. ICANN is mostly known for its role of awarding and registering the DNS of TLDs at the end of internet addresses after the dot, such as .com and .edu.
Initially, TLDs were only awarded to recognized countries, apart from the typical .com, .org.edu, and .net. Later, ICANN allowed TLDs to be awarded to regions and supranational organizations, such as .cat to Catalonia and .eu to the European Union. But in 2012, the field was thrown wide open. Anyone could step in and buy a “generic” top-level domain (gTLD).
The controversy started in 2011, when ICANN decided to auction off gTLDs as a way to raise funds. The Federal Trade Commission wrote a pointed letter to ICANN before the implementation of the new program, asking it to address concerns about the exponential expansion of gTLDs, and the implications for consumer protection and malicious abuse.
The fundraising so far has been a success, even if the FTC concerns have not been addressed. As of last November, ICANN had raised over $64 million from new gTLDs registrations. The .app TLD raised $25 million alone. Critics say the organization is not effectively upholding the lack of restrictions traditionally associated with TLDs. For instance, one registrar, XYZ.COM LLC, recently made an agreement with the Chinese government not to allow the registration of more than 12,000 words in any of the TLDs such as .car, .cars, .auto, .college, .protection, .security and .rent. Requests to register freedom.xyz, privacy.protection or liberty.security will be denied.
The Chinese government’s involvement has not been verified. But authoritarian governments like those in China, North Korea, and even Russia, could start massively buying TLDs in order to block certain websites.
While ICANN can’t influence what each country does with its TLD, since TLDs effectively belong to their respective governments, it can ensure that other generic TLDs follow strict rules of freedom of speech and fair use of the internet. The situation created by XYZ.COM and the Chinese government is a clear violation of the rules.
If the US government doesn’t act, it is effectively allowing the Chinese to censor a part of the Internet worldwide. While we are only talking about a few TLDs right now, it could be the beginning of a trend spreading to other registrants who want to make a dent in the Chinese market. Allowing this kind of behavior could lure bigger registrants such as GoDaddy, Enom.com, and Network Solutions to start making deals with certain governments to block the registration of certain names.
“A takeover of the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers by the Chinese, the Russians or some combination of governments unfriendly to…the democratic process is a possibility that must be taken seriously,” wrote Peter Roff in US News & World Report.
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Gordon Crovitz wrote: “The great danger of the U.S. ending its protection over ICANN has always been that authoritarian governments would find ways to censor websites globally by getting control over the root zone of web names and addresses. China in effect is now censoring .xyz addresses the same way it would like to censor .com, .org, etc.”
That is why ICANN, when it loses US government oversight later this year, should immediately be put under the supervision of a supranational organization such as the United Nations, and be guided by agreed rules. Those rules could take the form of an “Internet constitution” which could help monitor and discourage any attempt to use domain names to censor the net.
One possibility is to transfer ICANN’s role to the NETmundial initiative, which is supported by academia, stakeholders and government organizations such as the European Commission and the US Department of Commerce. The initiative could take on monitoring the DNS and domain registrations worldwide.