Tech fears shadow campaign to seize global control of Internet

Getty Images

Fearing a power grab for control of the Internet, members of the tech industry are pleading with Congress to pay attention to the domain name expansion that is underway at a little-known nonprofit.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), led by its CEO Fadi Chehade, last year began rolling out thousands of alternatives to the traditional .com ending used by most websites. New endings using the Latin alphabet, such as .clothing and .singles, became available in January, and hundreds of others are on the way.
 

ADVERTISEMENT
ICANN says it is focused on making the Internet more broadly available and has prioritized creating domain names in languages such as Chinese, Arabic and Cyrillic.
 
But critics say the nonprofit betrayed broader ambitions last year when it endorsed a statement calling for the globalization of ICANN and other domain name technical work that is currently managed by the United States.
 
By signing the statement, Chehade put “a target on ICANN’s back,” said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice.
 
“ICANN is not at the center of Internet governance,” said DelBianco, whose group represents companies such as Facebook, Yahoo and eBay.
 
The statement, which was issued with nine other Internet infrastructure organizations, suggested that the domain work of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) be handed over to ICANN. Those duties are now contracted out by the Commerce Department.

Some in the tech industry saw the statement as a direct challenge to the U.S. role in Internet governance, which is already being called into question after the revelations about global snooping at the National Security Agency (NSA).

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, declined to comment specifically on Chehade’s plans, but said the U.S. should retain leadership over how the Internet is managed.

The U.S. “gave birth” to the Internet, Eshoo said, and countries “with a different view” should not be allowed to regulate it.
 
“I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to see that,” Eshoo said during an upcoming episode of C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.”

DelBianco said members of Congress needs to start scrutinizing ICANN’s activities. For starters, the committees that oversee the Commerce Department should question ICANN’s calls for a globalized IANA.

“Capitol Hill should have something to say about it,” he said.

Amy Mushahwar, a data privacy and security attorney at Ballard Spahr, echoed the calls for congressional involvement.

If the rollout of new domain names goes poorly, other countries will have a stronger argument that there should be some central, impartial group responsible for Internet governance, such as the United Nations.

“It’s very dangerous for members to not watch this issue,” Mushahwar said.

Control over the Internet has long been a hot-button issue, given that many repressive governments have sought to limit what their citizens can see and do online.

Countries such as Russia and China have pushed for the UN to take an active role in governing the Internet, raising fears that they could try to codify restrictions on speech.

Congress emphatically rejected that push in 2012 by passing a resolution endorsing “a global Internet free from government control” and the preservation and advancement of “the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today.”

Former-Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who served as chairman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on the Internet, said the U.S. should fight any proposals to cede Internet governance to other governments or intergovernmental groups.

Allowing the U.N. to run the Internet “is a fundamentally bad idea,” Boucher said.

Beyond the Internet regulation question, the tech industry is also concerned that ICANN’s domain name bonanza will make it easier to abuse trademarks and deceive consumers.

Companies are spending time and money defensively registering domain names that they fear could be used by fraudulent businesses. An operation selling counterfeit electronics, for instance, could gain apparent legitimacy by purchasing the domain “iPods.shop.”

Mushahwar said the Federal Trade Commission has done “a heroic job” of protecting consumers from domain scams, but noted that the agency’s jurisdiction is limited to the U.S.

She said lawmakers should put pressure on ICANN to slow down the process and ensure that there are adequate protections in place for both consumers and companies.

“We definitely need more eyeballs on this issue.”

But not everyone is convinced that Congress should get involved.

Boucher, who held a hearing on the new domain name program in 2009, said Congress “doesn’t have any direct role” in ICANN’s work.

Those who have already invested millions in the new online real estate are also skeptical about the need for more oversight.

“The Internet is not going to break,” said one representative of a new domain name registry, pointing to previous launches of .biz and .info in 2000 and .net a few years later.

The rollout of these new domain names “is the same thing, just on a far bigger scale,” the registry representative said. “If something goes wrong on this big a scale, it’s going to be very visible.”

In a statement, an ICANN spokesman said the group has “taken a very conservative approach” to the domain expansion, which started almost nine years ago.

“As we emphasized over and over, we will not do anything that might compromise the security and stability of the Domain Name System,” the spokesman said.