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U.S. Pulls Out Of ICANN — What Does That Spell For Internet Users?


This weekend in Singapore, a big international meeting gets down to the basics of the Internet and who controls it. It's the 49th public meeting of ICANN. That's the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It's the organization that manages domain names for websites and email servers, a thing most of us take for granted. But this meeting is a bigger deal than usual. The Obama administration has announced that the U.S. will give up its control of ICANN. Some of the headlines: America's Internet Surrender, and: ICANN Move Doesn't Equal Net Armageddon.

Here to explain is Wall Street Journal technology reporter Gauthem Nagesh. Welcome to the program.

GAUTHEM NAGESH: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So first, just so we're totally clear, what exactly does ICANN do?

NAGESH: ICANN is a policymaking body that's in charge of the main phone directory for the Internet. They manage domain names and IP addresses, which essentially point users towards different servers or websites, things like the dot-com or dot-org or dot-gov domain.

CORNISH: Now, I've seen the U.S. described as a bodyguard for ICANN. Who actually runs it?

NAGESH: It's an international nonprofit. It's based here in the U.S. Every country has one vote at ICANN. The relationship the U.S. is stepping back from is a contractual relationship between ICANN and the Commerce Department. Because the Internet's pretty new, originally, a scientist named John Postel, computer scientist at USC in Southern California, used to manage the Internet names and addresses himself. When he passed away, the Commerce Department realized there was a need for someone to manage this increasingly important and large function, so they issued a contract to ICANN to handle it.

CORNISH: Now, the contract between the U.S. Commerce Department and ICANN is set to expire next fall. But who or what is going to take over?

NAGESH: That's the point of the process they're kicking off in Singapore. Basically, ICANN is going to convene all the relevant stakeholders, the engineers, the administrators of the top-level domains, the various countries that are involved, and they're all going to get together and try to come up with a new model. But the real point is to just ensure that ICANN is doing its job the way it's already been done. The Commerce Department largely just rubber stamps what ICANN does. They're going to try and create a new structure without any governmental involvement that will do the same thing. But we're still not sure what that will look like.

CORNISH: At the same time, we've been hearing about a push for some sort of United Nations-related group to do it, with countries like Russia and China stepping up to talk about this. And, you know, critics say, look, China is best known for its censorship of the net. I mean, are opponents actually right to worry here?

NAGESH: Well, in terms of the ICANN move itself, this should not affect censorship. China and Russia should not really gain any leverage through this move. If anything, this move is aimed to quiet people like China and Russia, who complain that the U.S. has a hand in the plumbing of the Internet and therefore is capable of doing things that maybe they don't support.

The U.S. position and that of its allies is that the Internet should be free and open and the government shouldn't interfere with it. That position has been undermined by the wrath of disclosures regarding surveillance from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. And China and Russia, who have always pushed for a more hands-on, top-down approach to the Internet that some people would label as censorship. Well, that approach has gained traction because while the U.S. has been loudly decrying this, they've also been doing a lot of stuff that people don't feel corresponds with the idea of Internet freedom.

CORNISH: Gauthem Nagesh, if ICANN is really more about a kind of maintenance than governance, why are people so upset about this? I mean, what do they see further down the line that people think is a concern?

NAGESH: Well, I think that this strikes at a few key issues, the primary being the U.S. has always been the steward of the Internet. And the contract with ICANN is the most outward example of that. If ICANN's relationship with the U.S. changes, there's fear that eventually it could move to another country or it would no longer be under the auspices of American law, which it is currently, and that would change the nature of the Internet itself in some people's view. I think if you're of the view that the Internet is best when it's under the supervision, essentially, of the American government or heavily influenced by American values, then, yes, you could see this as a more of an international turn, which could be viewed as a negative.

CORNISH: Gauthem Nagesh. He is the technology reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks so much for explaining it to us.

NAGESH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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