It could be a difficult breakup between the US government and the Internet.
A plan unveiled last month would see the US relinquish its key oversight role for the Internet, handing that over to “the global multistakeholder community.”
US officials say the move is part of a longstanding effort to privatize the technical oversight of the Internet.
However, it comes amid growing international pressure for Washington to step back from what some countries claim is a dominant role in the Internet.
Tensions have been exacerbated by the outcry over leaked documents showing the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) vast surveillance capabilities, feeding concern that the US manipulates the Internet for its own purposes.
However, some critics argue that Washington is “giving away” the Internet, posing long-term threats to online freedom and commerce.
US Representative Marsha Blackburn contends that the US shift “will allow countries like China and Russia, that don’t place the same value in freedom of speech, to better define how the Internet looks and operates.”
Some observers say the US is seeking to avoid the more extreme step of handing control over to a more politicized body, such as an arm of the UN.
“There have been a lot of fairly wild suggestions of how Internet governance should be changed,” US lawyer Greg Shatan said.
Shatan participates in working groups of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization that took over some of the functions in 1997 under an agreement with the US government.
In late 2012, a group of countries voted against the US on a telecom treaty Washington said could open the door to regulation of the Internet by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union.
“A lot of these governments are not looking for a free and open Internet,” Shatan said.
However, the US announcement calling for a new oversight system by September next year blunts that effort and could help bring “swing states” back in line with Washington, Shatan said.
US Department of Commerce official Lawrence Strickling, who heads the key unit in charge of the Internet, said at a forum on Friday that Washington is handing over what is “largely a clerical task” in verifying the accuracy of the Internet’s so-called root zone.
And he added that “nothing will happen unless we have a consensus” on governance that also meets the US criteria of avoiding a government-led or intergovernmental plan.
Former US telecom regulator Robert McDowell, a Hudson Institute fellow, worried the decision might create a void.
“The worst-case scenario would include foreign governments, either directly or through intergovernmental bodies, snatching the soon-to-be untethered technical functions for their own purposes,” McDowell said in a blog.
Information Technology & Innovation Foundation analyst Daniel Castro says in a report that without US overnight, “ICANN would not be accountable to anyone, and would be motivated only by the interests of those individuals who control the organization.”
The change sought by Washington would end the US role in what is on the surface, a dull, technical responsibility. However, these issues can become controversial, such as establishing new domains like .corruption, .amazon and the adult-oriented .xxx.
During a visit to the US capital, ICANN president and chief executive Fadi Chehade told lawmakers he saw no change in the way the Internet would operate.