Earlier this month, the US Commerce Department announced a plan to back away from its last direct involvement in running the Internet.
The man who made that decision, Lawrence Strickling, sees the government's role today as merely "clerical," but letting go of even that sends an important symbolic message: The Internet is all grown up now.
In an interview with CNET, Strickling, the assistant secretary for communications and information, said the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and other organizations are now mature enough to run the Internet through oversight by many stakeholders.
He denied that Edward Snowden's revelations of politically touchy US government surveillance of the Net was involved in the decision -- though ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé said that "stimulated" the deliberations about cutting the Commerce Department out of the oversight loop. In any event, the Commerce Department's role in the Net is limited to a very narrow job far less sweeping than anything the NSA is up to.
What exactly is that Commerce Department's job? A key part of the Internet is the Domain Name System (DNS), which acts like a phone book by translating human-readable Net addresses such as cnet.com into the numeric Internet Protocol addresses actually used to route data -- 184.108.40.206 in the case of cnet.com. The Net's central DNS records are stored on 13 clusters of servers called the root zone, and that data propagates across the entire Net for use by e-mail, the Web, and more. ICANN decides when new domains such as .ninja or .photo are added to the Net, but the Commerce Department -- through an agency Strickling runs called the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) -- has the job of verifying that ICANN followed its procedures and approving changes made to that root zone list.
The Commerce Department's contract with ICANN ends in September 2015, and that's when Strickling would like the US government to step aside. The plan that began in 1997 during the Clinton administration that started privatizing core Internet management through its contract with ICANN, but it took a long time to get to Strickling's March 14 announcement.
Strickling will still have plenty to worry about with online privacy, broadband deployment, mobile phone unlocking rules, wireless spectrum, and other technology matters. And the US will continue trying to steer the Internet the same way other governments do, through the ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee.
Strickling talked to CNET News' Stephen Shankland about the changes. The following is an edited transcript.
What exactly has changed with your announcement on Internet governance?
Strickling: Operationally, nothing has changed. All we've done is teed up the issue: let's get the plan put in place to actually allow us to transition out of our role, possibly by the end of the contract term next year. The way we've proposed to do that is to ask the technical experts, the business community, and civil society organizations to come together and, working with ICANN and other organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Architecture Board, come up with a plan.
That process got kicked off earlier [last week] at Singapore at the ICANN meeting, which about 2,000 people attended. ICANN held two public sessions to start collecting input as to how to go about creating this transition plan. That work is now beginning. We'll be watching that over coming months as they work out a plan.
There's an underlying assumption in a lot of these discussions that the US government runs the Internet. What you're talking about is an important but much narrower role, which is accepting changes to routing and addressing. In effect, do ICANN and this broader process already mostly run the Internet?
Strickling: Thank you! Finally, somebody understands. What you said is exactly right. This has been blown up into this idea that somehow the US controls the Internet today and that we're giving up control and creating this huge vacuum into which other people will step, including people maybe we don't want to have controlling the Internet. But the fact is that ICANN does all of this today, in conjunction with Verisign. Our role is just to verify the accuracy of the changes as they come through.
There is no one party that controls the Internet today. This is a network of networks, and even what we're talking about is at the top level. All of the Web sites that have been created using .com or .edu or .us -- none of that is implicated by any any of what we're talking about here.
Over the last couple years there's been a lot of talk about a United Nations agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), taking over a bigger role in Internet governance. How does the US government see that possibility?
Strickling: We've made it very clear that we will not accept a plan from the community that turns our role to a government-led organization or intergovernmental organization. That's a red line we put out there in terms of not accepting that, and I have to tell you, I don't really think there's a serious possibility that the community made up of civil society and businesses and technical experts would ever come back with that as a proposal.
There will be later this year in Korea the plenipotentiary conference of the ITU. It might be that certain countries will pursue this angle again in Korea. We don't know. But one of the things we've been working hard on is building international support for this multistakeholder process of Internet governance, so if we get to Korea and these issues are presented, we would have the support not just of the developed world but increasingly of the developing world to push back against these kinds of ideas.
The countries that would push this are very small in number. We're talking about largely authoritarian regimes, but it'll be important in the international debate to have the support not of countries like Europe and Australia and New Zealand, but also the developing world. This conference being hosted in Brazil next month hosted by the Brazilian government, Net Mundial, is important. It demonstrates the commitment of Brazil to the multistakeholder model of Internet governance. We hope it'll attract a large number of other countries from the developing world. In the wake of our announcement, we got a very strong supporting announcement from the African Union Commission, which reflects the commitment on their part to multistakeholder governance. The prospects are pretty good that any attempts to bring this to the ITU in the fall will not be successful.
What's wrong with the ITU takeover possibility?
Strickling: What has made the Internet what it is today, we believe, has been the ability to tap into the knowledge, creativity, and expertise of all the different stakeholders -- business community, civil society, the technical experts. The Internet has been growing by leaps and bounds. It's been a source of great economic value creation. It's been a source of great innovation. We think that is largely attributable to the fact that it has not been something regulated by government. We oppose strongly the idea of the ITU or any other intergovernmental organization taking this over because we think it threatens the economic growth and innovation that we've enjoyed from the Internet.
I've also detected a fear that the values of the Internet that the US has promoted will be undermined or wiped out. I point here in particular to censorship. We've seen in Egypt and now in Turkey where the Internet or parts of the Internet get shut off, or China where some searches are not permitted. How serious is that fear that censorship will encroach on the Internet, and how much ability did the US government really have to stop that?
Strickling: First, we're not abandoning the Internet, and we're not abandoning ICANN. We continue to participate very heavily in the policy-making process at ICANN through our role in the Governmental Advisory Committee. We will continue to be strong advocates for Internet freedom. We're not leaving the field; we're simply going to stop verifying changes to root-zone requests. We intend to be very involved, active, strong advocates for Internet freedom. The role we play today really doesn't prevent any individual country from taking actions within its borders with respect to the issues you describe. Certainly it's not something we like to see. But what it's really going to require is the international community coming together and setting norms and values and standards that make it harder and harder for governments to attempt to do these kinds of things, and make it clear to them that effectively cutting their citizens off from all the economic benefits of the free flow of information actually is self-defeating to the economies of some of these countries.
Brazil for a while was looking at a data localization requirement. This is the idea that people have to keep all the data within Brazil that relates to Brazilian citizens. But upon reflection, the realized that was going to be counterproductive in terms of its impact on Brazilian businesses and the Brazilian economy by making it harder for businesses outside Brazil to offer products and services within the country. So that was left out of the final legislation, I think largely in reflection of the fact that the Internet has become so international, and people are so dependent on the free flow of information, that some of these attempts to localize data or worse, engage in censorship, really end up hurting the country that imposes them rather than protecting anything.
Why did you make the decision now? Was Edward Snowden and all the international political trouble part of the decision to make this move now?
Strickling: No, not really. This has been planned since 1998. Our decision to do it now was based on the increasing maturation of ICANN in terms of a more accountable and transparent and technically proficient organization. Since 2009, ICANN has committed to improvements in this space. I personally have been a part of the first two accountability and transparency review teams that proposed recommendations to ICANN, which they have accepted. We've seen a lot of improvement there. It was guided by the fact that we're seeing increasing international acceptance of the multistakeholder model, particularly among developing countries. That, combined with the target date of September 2015, we thought it was important to get the process started. We announced it before an ICANN meeting so the community would have a chance to assemble and start the discussions on how to develop a plan.
You've expressed concerns about the expansion of generic top-level domains [moving beyond .com and .net to also include .nyc, .florist, .blue, and hundreds of other Net addresses] after a lot of trademark holder squawked about GTLDs imposing a lot of new trademark protection burdens. Were you satisfied that ICANN did a good enough job explaining the benefits? And are you convinced it's affordable -- I hear concerns over and over again about how expensive it is to participate in the GTLD program.
Strickling: I think the jury is still out on that, but overall I'm encouraged by the progress we've seen. One of the things that emerged is the ability of brand holders to use their own brand as a top-level domain in a way that, while it may have cost $200,000 to apply for it, the amount of cost they might save from that in terms of their search optimization and stuff suggests there will be large benefits to companies to doing that. It also helps those companies deal with piracy of their products, because they control anybody who would use, say, the .nike top-level domain. They can assure customers that if you want legitimate product, you need to buy from a vendor using the .nike top-level domain. The business plans are still emerging on all of this. The benefits are still to be determined. But overall, we're encouraged by what we're seeing.