Former Commerce official: We should have had a plan before giving up the Web

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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A Friday announcement by the Commerce Department to hand over Internet management to the “global Internet community” should never have been made without a real plan to ensure the stability, autonomy and security of the Web, according to a former department official.

“Where it transfers to is the key question,” former National Telecommunications & Information Administration head John Kneuer told The Daily Caller. “I would have hoped that the administration had a more clear view on that then what they expressed on Friday night. They kind of said, ‘Well, we’re going to give it up and we will wait to see where its supposed to go to,’ effectively – ‘We’ll ask the community to tell us.’”

The NTIA is the Commerce Department subsection that oversees the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which has distributed domain names, assigned Internet protocol addresses, and executed other crucial Internet functions since 2000. ICANN essentially maintains the Internet roadmap through its Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which directs web-connected devices to the websites and servers users search for.

As part of its oversight function, the Commerce Department provides the legal underpinning for all of ICANN’s Internet maintenance functions — confirming and certifying the changes make by a handful of global institutions working with ICANN to keep the Web up-to-date and responsive.

By virtually all accounts from former ambassadors to White House officials, the United States government has done an exemplary job of maintaining the global Internet free of exclusive national or personal interests — but that could change depending on where oversight of ICANN transfers to.

“If ICANN’s going to remain doing what it does, who’s going to maintain this oversight role of the IANA that the USG has held?” Kneuer said. “And that’s the question. This is the future of the Internet as an economic engine going forward, and we can’t put a number on it – it’s too big.”

While much of the pressure for the U.S. government to hand over ICANN has been attributed to invasive global National Security Agency surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden, the first blow was actually struck at the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications — a meeting of nations led by the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to discuss international telecommunications regulations, and propose changes through treaties.

The U.S. and other allies left the 2012 negotiations without signing an ITU proposal backed by European nations to hand many of ICANN’s Internet management functions over to the UN.

“In the past, the fear of the U.S. government’s role is that we could reach into the root and pull out domains, and shut off portions of the Internet,” Kneuer said. “But the reason the system has worked to-date, is because the United States government has never exercised any control or tried to operationalize this function in any way.”

“If the Untied States government ever did try to take this narrow, functionary role that it has and tried to use it in any way, then the system would collapse and everyone would go somewhere else,” Kneuer said.

Though pressure from the Snowden leaks undoubtedly contributed to the global argument to pull Internet management out of U.S. hands, from a technical standpoint NSA surveillance and Internet management are wholly separate.

“There is nothing related to the Unites States government role that would impact, enable, support, any of the NSA operations,” Kneuer said. “There’s nothing in that function that would be of impact to what the NSA and every other foreign government does. This is a very discreet limited role on issuing IP address, on coordinating registrars and registries, and making sure that the authoritative root zone remains authoritative, and that’s all there is.”

If managed by an intergovernmental body like the UN, however, those functions could be used to serve a specific organization or country’s economic or political interest, which is inherently where potential cyber and national security concerns arise. Outside of U.S. management standards, international companies or entities could apply pressure to lower security standards due to the high cost, claiming they would be disadvantaged in the global Internet marketplace otherwise — a trend that could lead to the Internet’s security infrastructure falling to its lowest common denominator.

“It’s not direct security problems as it is indirect that comes form the system getting fiddled with in support of non-technical agendas,” Kneuer said.

According to to the former Commerce head, the administration’s Friday decision should not have been made without establishing a core of support nations for a safe transfer of Internet governance to the global community — with a specific set of criteria to ensure its stability.

“You announce that kind of thing at a big policy place where there’s going to be lots of people, and you’ve got a built-in echo chamber of support, and the momentum shifts toward the place where we want it to go,” Kneuer said. “Instead we just cast this thing out on a Friday night and said, ‘Well, we’ll see what happens.’ I think that’s disappointing.”

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