Various news outlets are reporting that Rod Beckstrom, chief executive of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), intends to leave the organization next July. For those who are not familiar with ICANN, the organization is a nonprofit corporation charged with regulating and managing the Domain Name System under which Internet Protocol addresses and registration of top-level domains (such as .org and .com) are assigned. “Governance” of the medium has been historically minimal—led by nongovernmental entities and overseen by the U.S. government, which has exercised a light regulatory touch. This freedom allowed the Internet to grow and develop at a truly remarkable pace.
The Obama Administration decided in 2009 to withdraw U.S. oversight and protection of ICANN on the justification that ICANN and the Internet had become too important internationally to be overseen by any one nation. The U.S. reached agreement with other nations to affirm ICANN as “independent” and “not controlled by any one entity.”
This decision raised questions about whether the Internet, bereft of U.S. protection, could become more susceptible to political agendas under the guise of international governance. After all, the United Nations has sought for some time to acquire authority over ICANN and the Internet, at the behest of a number of countries who wish to tax, regulate, or censor Internet commerce and communications.
Under the stewardship of Beckstrom, ICANN has, by and large, managed to resist these efforts. As pointed out by David Bosco of the Multilateralist blog, however, Beckstrom’s “departure may presage a power struggle in which China, Russia and some other countries seek to have internet governance moved from ICANN to the International Telecommunications Union or some other UN body over which they can exert more influence.”
Some members of Congress have expressed concern over the possibility that countries may try to use the U.N. to facilitate their efforts to control the Internet. The Obama Administration should share this concern and work with Congress to defend this important medium.