The clock is ticking for the U.S. government to cede authority over naming conventions of the Internet.
Since 1998, the U.S. Department of Commerce has contracted the job out to Los Angeles-based non-profit ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to oversee and act as the gatekeeper for – among other things – all domain names, such as .ca, .edu, .org, .com. Those are referred to as the Domain Name System (DNS), which ICANN manages through a department called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
For years, the U.S. government has had the long-term goal of transferring the IANA functions to a private corporation. But in 2014, the Obama administration announced it would take steps to officially end its contract and hand ICANN over to a global body. After delays, that process is gaining urgency as a Sept. 30 deadline set by the Commerce Department approaches and a U.S. federal election nears.
Although it doesn't draw headlines like immigration or economic issues do, the process – known as the IANA transfer – has become something of a hot-button topic in the election campaign, with Republicans, including candidate Ted Cruz, raising fears about the consequences of the United States ceding control.
"What is the global Internet community that Obama wants to turn the Internet over to? This risks foreign dictatorships defining the Internet," former Republican congressman Newt Gingrich tweeted after the transfer plans were announced.
ICANN is meant to be run by the global Internet community from the bottom up, with policy coming directly from users and not governments or other institutions.
"The Internet has grown and thrived as an engine for economic growth, innovation and free expression because of the stakeholders who have worked for years on a consensus basis to solve Internet technical and policy challenges," a U.S National Telecommunications and Information Administration (which is overseeing the transfer) spokesperson said in an e-mail. "The IANA transition is aimed at preserving and strengthening this multi-stakeholder model."
The transfer has the backing of some major U.S. technology companies. In a recent blog post, an Intel executive endorsed an open letter written by industry titans, including Microsoft, Dell and Amazon, in favour of the move. "We celebrate the effort that will enshrine America's commitment to ensuring the future of a global, interoperable and stable global Internet," they wrote in the letter.
The transfer also draws support from observers who believe it could help stave off possible fragmentation of the Internet. There is a concern shared by many within the tech community that the Internet will cease to be a single entity and instead fracture into regional Internets, called the "splinternet."
For example, if you type www.globeandmail.com, no matter where you are in the world, you'll be routed to The Globe and Mail's homepage. In the event of splinternet, however, typing the address in, say, Saudi Arabia could bring you to an entirely different site.
While the U.S. government rarely exercised its authority over ICANN – and only over technical details – other nations have expressed concern about the degree of power the United States holds over the institution and therefore the global DNS (China and Russia, for example, have pushed for the United Nations to take over).
"It's in the interest of Internet stability to keep moving toward this multi-stakeholder global model," said Laura DeNardis, a scholar of Internet governance at American University.
But critics say the United States is "giving up control of the Internet" by relinquishing its oversight of IANA. And beyond the idea of giving away the Internet, there are also concerns with ICANN itself.
Mr. Cruz is pushing for the process to be voted on by U.S. Congress, expressing concern that ICANN could be influenced by outside interests. He points to former ICANN chief executive officer Fadi Chehade's connection to the Chinese government's World Internet Conference, where he will chair a high-level advisory committee. The announcement of Mr. Chehade's joining the committee was made public when he was still CEO of ICANN in late 2015.
Mr. Cruz believes there could have been Chinese influence on ICANN at the time through Mr. Chehade.
"There are governments out there … that would certainly be interested in influencing the decisions of ICANN in a way that they would prefer," said Brett Schaefer, an international regulatory affairs fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank.
Mr. Schaefer has several reservations about ICANN's readiness to leave U.S. oversight, including the expanded role of governments within ICANN after the transfer and the ability to hold ICANN's board to account.
"We have doubts as to the institutional maturity of ICANN," he said. "When presented with several difficult situations over the past couple years, ICANN has ducked responsibility and sought to, in essence, put the tough decisions on to other authorities."
Steve Crocker, chair of ICANN's board of directors, counters that no single government would have significant control at ICANN (states interact with ICANN as part of a 162-member committee) and said that right now, the current contract with the U.S. Commerce Department adds an extra unnecessary level of bureaucracy that is not fit for the fast-paced realm of the Internet.
While he's not particularly concerned about the splinternet, he does want all countries to stay engaged.
"It's not the case that we're worried about China … or any other country [taking over ICANN]," he said. "What we're more concerned about is that [other governments] don't get involved [with the global Internet community] and go off in their own direction."