Governing the Net: ‘my way or the highway’, says US
27 Mar 2014| and

ICANN49 is currently being held in Singapore. Early indicators coming out of the conference are favourable to the US' multistakeholder position on internet governance.

The Snowden revelations seem to have been the final straw that broke American resolve against the internationalisation of the Internet. After beating back numerous counter-proposals from Russia and China, working tirelessly to keep a restless EU in its camp, and long championing a multi-stakeholder model, the blowback against extensive NSA surveillance activities and the loss of confidence in the status quo was a storm America couldn’t weather. In a mere 549-word press release, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the US Department of Commerce (DOC) announced it would surrender the last remnant of US oversight over ICANN.

‘This is very, very dangerous’ tweeted Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. ‘This risks foreign dictatorships defining the internet.’ Dramatic words to describe the handover of Domain Name System (DNS) responsibility to ICANN. The reality is much more straight forward—check out episode one of the Governing the Net weekly series for a backgrounder.

US Administration officials and ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé have come forward to deny the connection between the handover and the recent spate of leaks, but we think it’s fair to say that it turned the tide. Snowden’s disclosures emboldened opponents and irrevocably damaged the moral platform on which the multi-stakeholder model was built. US stewardship, however symbolic, is no longer palatable to a large majority of the cyber community. But the move to internationalisation on 14 March wasn’t a hollow cry of defeat; rather, it was a canny diplomatic move that served to deflect attacks against the DOC role in the Internet and solidified US command of the debate.

2014 is set to be a big year for the future of the Internet. April’s NETmundial conference hosted by Brazil was a major break by a budding power that will build off the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation—seen as a coup in itself. The ITU Plenipotentiary in South Korea was marked as the next battleground where Russia and China could take the US to task and push its reinvigorated campaign for a sovereignty-based Internet governance system. These and other fora offer emerging powers the space to vie for a seat at the table, a chance to both speak and be heard, and established players an opportunity to shape the Internet in their own image, consistent with national interests but not conducive to consensus reforms.

With this in mind, and with anti-US sentiment mustered by the drip-feed of NSA revelations, it’s clear to see why the US decided to shake things up early in 2014. By going all in with the ICANN system, the US has been able to undercut the counter narrative lodged against the multi-stakeholder model while reinforcing the system it designed itself. The primary weapon of choice for a more state-centric model was rooted in the perception of undue US control over the existing governance scheme, with proponents arguing that all states should have an equal say as within the UN system or International Telecommunications Union. By relinquishing its official capacity, the US has restored the credibility of the ICANN system, mollified countries calling for internationalisation and provided strategic cover for ‘fence-sitters’ to come down in support of ICANN. And all of this was achieved with minimal actual cost. The US is simply foregoing its limited oversight of an essentially independent organisation in exchange for the internalisation and codification of its core values as enshrined in the NTIA four principles.

While it’s unclear how the ICANN process will play out, the first indicators (see here and here) trickling out of ICANN49 in Singapore are highly favourable to the United States’ position. Chehadé publically backed the DOC move as ‘providing an incredible edge to what we [ICANN] can do,’ ’validating’ the multistakeholder model. The US move has also received vocal support from numerous governments including the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, and the European Union. The Singapore meetings, which end today, mark the first step in the long process to transfer responsibility from DOC to ICANN. Judging by the snippets available at the time of publication, the defence of the multi-stakeholder model has clearly been reinvigorated. Keep your eyes on the ICANN49 site to see how things wrap up later today, including an official communique and responses.

Given the year ahead for the future of the Internet and the year that was for US leadership in cyber privacy, it was crucial that America took steps to reclaim the high ground in the Internet governance debate. In one fell swoop they have done just that, throwing their weight behind the multi-stakeholder model and setting the agenda for the debate moving forward. The message is clear: do it our way or don’t even bother.

Klée Aiken is an analyst and David Lang is an intern in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user icannphotos.