A group of nerds and wonks is having some hideously boring meetings this week in Singapore. You should care – what they produce could change the nature of the Internet.
On March 14, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration said it would relinquish oversight of ICANN, the nonprofit group that has managed the name-and-address system of the Internet since 1998. To simplify a bit, ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – is what ensures that you magically get connected to the site you want when you type in a Web address.
The NTIA has done an exemplary job protecting the Internet’s openness and stability with a hands-off and nonpolitical approach to overseeing ICANN. Now it plans to hand that oversight to an international conglomerate of “stakeholders.” In Singapore, ICANN’s members are discussing what that group should look like.
The United States has always said that it intended to internationalize ICANN’s oversight. But for the transfer to be a (forgive the pun) net positive – and not dangerously counterproductive – it matters how it is done.
Before the NTIA’s contract with ICANN ends next year, it should require a few things that could help smooth the transition. And the U.S. government shouldn’t hesitate to delay or even cancel the transfer if these conditions aren’t met.
First, ICANN must affirm that its finances will remain an open book, subject to public audit each year. It should commit to maintaining a legal presence in any country in which it has contracts. Its technical functions should be strictly separated from its more politicized policy-making functions. And, most important, ICANN must explain how it intends to remain free of harmful political influence and keep its leadership accountable.
One of the great benefits of U.S. oversight of ICANN is that it just works – and has for almost two decades. That’s the central point the Web’s stakeholders should keep in mind as they exchange ideas and acronyms this week in Singapore.