WASHINGTON — A planunveiled last month would see the United States relinquish its key oversight role for the Internet, handing that over to "the global multistakeholder community." U.S. officials say the move is part of a longstanding effort to privatize the technical oversight of the Internet but it comes amid growing international pressure for Washington to step back from what some countries claim is a dominant role over the Internet.
Tensions have been exacerbated by the outcry over leaked documents showing the U.S. National Security Agency's vast surveillance capabilities, feeding concern that the U.S. manipulates the Internet for its own purposes. Some critics argue, however, that Washington is "giving away" the Internet, posing long-term threats to online freedom and commerce. Representative Marsha Blackburn contends that the U.S. shift "will allow countries like China and Russia, that don't place the same value on freedom of speech, to better define how the Internet looks and operates."
Some observers say the U.S. is seeking to avoid the more extreme step of handing control over to a more politicized body, such as an arm of the United Nations. "There have been a lot of fairly wild suggestions of how Internet governance should be changed," said U.S. lawyer Greg Shatan. Shatan participates in working groups of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization that took over some of the functions in 1997 under an agreement with the U.S. government. In late 2012, a group of countries voted against the U.S. on a telecom treaty Washington said could open the door to regulation of the Internet by the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union. "A lot of these governments are not looking for a free and open Internet," Shatan told. "They are looking for a moderated, controlled Internet."
The change would end the U.S. role in what is on the surface, a dull, technical responsibility. But these issues can become controversial, such as establishing new domains like .corruption, .amazon and the adult-oriented.
ICANN President and Chief Executive Fadi Chehade told he saw no change in the way the Internet would operate. "The multi-stakeholder community has Chehade sought to debunk the idea that the U.S. is "giving away the Internet." "This announcement shows the world America's values," he said. "We're sending a message to the world that we trust the multi-stakeholder model." Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would block the U.S. withdrawal.
Some argue the U.S. needs to take a symbolic step to reassure its diplomatic allies in light of the row created by leaked documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.