The U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has contracted with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to manage core functions of the Internet since ICANN was established in 1998, including managing policy and technical features of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS). Since the establishment of ICANN, the federal government has expressed its intent to make governance of the DNS fully private—that is, free from government oversight. However, this transition has been repeatedly deferred due to a perceived value in retaining U.S. influence and concerns over ICANN’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities absent the oversight role played by the NTIA. Unexpectedly, on March 14, 2014, the NTIA announced that it did not intend to renew its contract with ICANN and mandated that the organization consult with “global stakeholders” to agree on an alternative to the “current role played by NTIA.”
This is a very important issue politically and economically. Nations like Russia have made no secret of their desire to use international organizations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an arm of the United Nations, to assert authority over the Internet as a means for limiting speech that is critical of or damaging to their interests. Even some democratic nations like those in the European Union have supported limiting undesirable speech, or limiting economic freedoms online. If they succeed, a vital medium for speech and political discourse could be crippled.
The potential economic impact of a more restricted and less dynamic Internet is equally concerning. According to “The Contribution of the Information, Communications, and Technology Sector to the Growth of the U.S. Economy: 1997-2007” published by the Hudson Institute in September 2014, the ICT sector contributed 19 percent to America’s economic gross output growth from 1997 to 2002 (more than 582 billion 2013 dollars) and 9.3 percent to gross output growth from 2002 to 2007 (more than 340 billion 2013 dollars).
In short, the Internet is too important for the announced transition to occur in a manner that threatens the freedom or vitality of the Internet.
Thankfully, there are some Members of Congress who are paying attention to this critical issue. The most recent contribution is the Defending Internet Freedom Act of 2014 introduced by Representative Mike Kelly (R–PA). The legislation, which is very closely aligned with the recommendations made by Heritage analysts in a June paper on required reforms and standards for ICANN transition, would prohibit NTIA from relinquishing its responsibilities unless specific requirements are met and reforms are in place. Among other requirements, the Act would require bylaw changes to restrict the influence of the Government Advisory Committee, implement a process for independent resolution of disputes, make it more difficult for ICANN to increase fees, implement a transparency process at least as protective of public access as the Freedom of Information Act, and institute changes to require ICANN to respect freedom of expression and establish an independent body to review and overturn ICANN decisions that violate that requirement.
While reasonable people may disagree over the specific requirements than ICANN should adopt and implement prior to the transition, there should be no argument over the need for Congress to work with the Administration to define and detail minimum protections, including protections to preserve freedom of expression and reforms designed to enhance ICANN accountability and insulate it from government capture.