Europe protests the US control of ICANN

The popular perception of the Internet is that it is inherently global in nature, an international network that is just as open and accessible regardless of what country you happen to be in, or what language you speak. And for the most part (with the exception of some totalitarian states such as China) that is the case. However, the keys to this particular kingdom belong to one country: namely, the U.S., through its control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Some critics don’t like that state of affairs, and are trying to change it — including the Information Commission of the European Union, Viviane Reding. The EU official said this week that ICANN should not be overseen by the U.S. government (the agency operates under an agreement with the Commerce Department), but should be run democratically by a group of states. While the U.S. has done a good job of managing the process, she said, “in the long run, it is not defendable that the government department of only one country has oversight of an Internet function which is used by hundreds of millions of people in countries all over the world.”

ICANN, as it is called, is the non-profit entity that controls the Internet’s entire domain name structure — including the creation of new “top-level” domains such as .xxx and .mobi — and is in charge of handing out domain names and IP addresses. It manages this process through a separate entity known as IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), which controls the 13 root nameservers that translate domain names and URLs into IP addresses. Until relatively recently, these DNS servers were all located in the United States, in most cases inside government offices.

The EU commissioner said in her recent address that she hopes President Obama continues with the Clinton administration’s plan to privatize ICANN, and she suggested that a perfect opportunity for such a move is coming in September, when the agency’s agreement with the U.S. government expires. Among other things, Reding said that she would like ICANN to be regulated by an international tribunal (any legal disputes involving the agency are currently handled by the courts in California, since it is located there).

There have been discussions in the past about the United Nations taking over control of ICANN, and other EU critics have requested that the European Union investigate the U.S. agency for restraint of trade because of its control of the plumbing of the Internet. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has also criticized ICANN.

Will the September expiry of the U.S. government’s deal with ICANN be the opportunity that Viviane Reding and others are hoping for? Will the international community — either the EU itself or the UN — take control over the reins of the Internet? There certainly seems to be increasing interest in doing so, and the Obama administration is ideologically a lot closer to the previous Clinton government, which had begun the process toward releasing ICANN from its government associations. All that remains is for the last ties to be cut, and for the agency to become as international as the Internet whose plumbing it manages.

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