The U.S. government on Friday announced it is taking steps to relinquish control over the back end of the Internet.
The Department of Commerce announced it is beginning a process to transfer control over the technical system that operates the Internet’s domain name system, which ensures that Internet users can get to the websites they’re looking for.
Currently, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — an agency with Commerce — oversees that technical system, named the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
Historically, it has contracted the operation of IANA out to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN) on a biennial basis. The current contract is set to expire in September of 2015.
ICANN — which contains an advisory board comprised of government representatives — also manages the system for naming domains, ensuring that each web address is registered to only one person.
“NTIA is asking ICANN to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition the current role played by NTIA,” NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling said during a press call Friday.
Strickling said any proposal “must have broad community support” and must be based on a multistakeholder approach to Internet governance.
“It must maintain the openness of the Internet,” he said. “We will not accept a proposal …with a government led or an intergovermental solution.”
According to an NTIA official, the U.S. agency will continue overseeing IANA until the contract expires in 2015. At that point, the agency hopes to be able to transfer stewardship, the official said.
Some lawmakers and members of the tech industry have expressed concern that relinquishing control of IANA will open up the Internet to threats from other governments that seek to censor it.
While the U.S. can participate in the domain name system through ICANN’s Government Advisory Council, its oversight role of IANA was the only direct link between the U.S. government and the critical Internet infrastructure.
Critics of ICANN have said that increased globalization of the domain name system could decrease the influence of the U.S. as one of the most vocal proponents of Internet freedom.
Senate Commerce Chairman Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerHumorless politics a sad sign of our times Bottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease MORE (D-W.Va.) applauded the administration's move, calling it consistent with a free and open Internet.
"The U.S. has been committed to transitioning management of the Internet’s domain name system to an independent entity that reflects the broad diversity of the global Internet community," Rockefeller said in a statement.
The announcement "is beginning the process of transferring additional domain name functions to ICANN is the next phase in this transition" and is "consistent with other efforts the U.S. and our allies are making to promote a free and open Internet, and to preserve and advance the current multi-stakeholder model of global Internet governance," Rockefeller said.
Fadi Chehade, the CEO of ICANN, said during the call that his organization will bring stakeholders together to discuss a transition process for IANA during ICANN’s upcoming meeting in Singapore later this month.
“All stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and government of this global resource as equal partners,” he said.
“We thank the U.S. government for its stewardship, for its guidance, over the years, and we thank them today for trusting the global community to replace their stewardship.”
An NTIA official denied that the agency’s move was in reaction to revelations about U.S. government surveillance programs over the last year which have sparked international criticism of America's role in Internet governance.
Chehade and Strickling both pointed to the original plans for IANA.
“The U.S. government and Internet stakeholders envisioned that the U.S. role in the IANA functions would be temporary,” Strickling said.
In a statement, Verizon applauded the Commerce agency's move to relinquish control over the technical system.
"A successful transition in the stewardship of these important functions to the global multi-stakeholder community would be a timely and positive step in the evolution of Internet governance," Craig Silliman, senior vice president of public policy, said.
"Given the importance of the IANA functions to the stability and correct functioning of the Internet, it will be essential that a plan that preserves the security, stability, and seamless nature of the Internet be developed through a comprehensive multi-stakeholder process prior to the transition.”
— This story was last updated at 6:27 p.m.