The United States government moved to relinquish stewardship of key internet technical functions on Saturday, paving the way for a private, international non-profit group to assume oversight of the internet's core naming directory.
Tech policy experts say the historic transfer of US stewardship over the Domain Name System (DNS) to an independent group of global stakeholders will help ensure internet openness and freedom. The transition moved forward after a last-ditch Republican effort to sabotage the handover was rejected by a federal judge late Friday.
The oversight transfer, which has been in the works for nearly two decades, is largely clerical in nature, and is unlikely to even be noticed by internet users. But that didn't stop Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and presidential candidate Donald Trump from using scare-tactics to try to scuttle the plan for political gain.
"This is a symbolic, but important step in preserving the stability and openness of the internet, which impacts free speech, our economy and our national security," Ed Black, President & CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, said in an emailed statement.
Starting Saturday, stewardship of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions, including the DNS, which translates website names like vice.com into numeric internet protocol (IP) addresses, will be fully overseen by a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group of international stakeholders called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
On Wednesday, four Republican state attorneys general sued the Obama administration in Texas federal court in order to block the transition. In their lawsuit, the attorneys general for Arizona, Oklahoma, Nevada and Texas argued that the move would violate US law and imperil US national security—spurious claims that have been debunked by US officials and tech policy experts.
Late Friday, Galveston, Texas federal judge George Hanks Jr. denied the state attorneys general request for an injunction, clearing the way for the transition to move forward. On Saturday morning, the US government allowed its contract with ICANN to expire, which means that ICANN will now assume sole stewardship over key internet naming functions.
"This decision is another clear sign that efforts from a fringe group to block the IANA transition are misguided and irresponsible."
Sen. Brian Schatz, the Democrat from Hawaii who serves as Ranking Member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, said he was "glad the court found this lawsuit to be baseless, and appropriately threw it out."
"This decision is another clear sign that efforts from a fringe group to block the IANA transition are misguided and irresponsible," Sen. Schatz said in a statement. "We can now keep our long-standing and public commitment to the global community to keep the internet open and free."
Republican arguments suggesting that the transition will undermine US interests by leading to a UN takeover of the internet are baseless, according to tech policy experts. In fact, the transition will help promote internet freedom by distributing stewardship of the global internet's technical functions to a broad, international coalition of public and private stakeholders, ensuring that no single nation can undermine the key functions for everyone else.
For more than a decade, ICANN managed the IANA functions under a contract with the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). But the US has long made clear that it intended to relinquish oversight of the DNS oversight functions in order to facilitate "international participation" in internet governance.
Leading civil society and public interest groups supported the transition, including the Internet Society, Access Now, Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. These groups argued that the transition to a multi-stakeholder model will help prevent any one nation from exercising direct government control over the internet.
"No one country or entity controls the internet."
For the last several weeks, Cruz and other Republicans, including Donald Trump, have been pushing false claims that the US is surrendering "control" of the internet to the UN, or perhaps more ominously, to "enemies" like Iran or China. Most tech policy experts reject those assertions because the internet is a decentralized, global "network of networks" that no single government can control.
Authoritarian countries like Iran and China can and do censor the internet for their own citizens, but they have no power to exert similar repression over US consumers—and that won't change after the governance transition, experts say.
"No one country or entity controls the internet," Assistant US Commerce Secretary and NTIA Chief Larry Strickling, who is overseeing the transition for the US government, testified before Congress last month. "The internet is a network of networks that operates with the cooperation of stakeholders around the world."
Lauren Weinstein, a veteran tech policy expert who was involved in developing the ARPANET, the precursor to the internet, blasted the last-minute efforts by Republicans to sow fear about the transition for political gain.
"Anyone hearing the bizarre, false, politicized, last-ditch rants of the politicians who tried to block the transition could be excused for waking up Saturday morning and being stunned to discover that the transition took place as scheduled, and yet there was no related internet Armageddon," Weinstein told Motherboard. "Nor will there be."
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