Move Over Facebook - You’ve Got Company

Perhaps we are right to be roasting Facebook and grilling its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.  But many observers think we should be far more alarmed about the goings on at a murky California company that was empowered by President Obama to oversee the Internet’s core.  For the apparent gross mismanagement at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ( ICANN) may be even more appalling than Facebook’s transgressions.

For the uninitiated (like me, for instance) some foundation would be a good start, for ICANN was not an entity on the tip of my tongue. ICANN is a non- profit organization founded nearly 20 years ago as the Internet was expanding rapidly. It is responsible for coordinating the maintenance and procedures of several databases related to the namespaces of the Internet.

Its protocols ensure the network's stable and secure operation. It is involved mainly with the Domain Name System (DNS) and is tasked with helping preserve the operational stability of the Internet and to promote competition. In short, ICANN’s charter was, essentially, to improve the technical management of Internet names and addresses.

For example, to reach another person on the Internet you have to type an address into your computer - a name or a number. That address has to be unique so computers know where to find it. ICANN coordinates these unique identifiers across the world. Without that coordination, there wouldn't be one unified global Internet. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that ICANN doesn’t control the Internet, but it does have an important impact on the expansion and evolution of the Internet.

Over time, as was predetermined when it grew out of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), ICAN would operate under rolling contracts to the Department of Commerce. As is typical of a private corporation. If it received contracts from the US government, it is reasonable to assume that there would be government oversight of its activities. WRONG! That might have been the case way back when, but along the way, it became opaque as oversight disappeared... by design.

That ICANN is lacking any internal accountability may be because President Obama’s administration removed any government accountability from it.  About eighteen months ago the US government handed control of the critical parts of the internet to ICANN, and in effect removed it from government control or oversight.

This event was a headscratcher because it came on the heels of the Obama administration going in the opposite direction in the regulation discussion with net neutrality. So much for consistency, and it makes plain the political -not practical - elements of net neutrality. President Barack Obama unilaterally decided ICANN was better off without any government intervention. ICANN now has absolute control of key Internet infrastructure and answers to no one.

One could try to justify it given that the disappearance of oversight was a knee-jerk reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelations, which painted the government as being too involved in the Internet-for lack of a better explanation. As a Washington Examiner opinion piece opines, getting the government out of the Internet world (famously excepting net neutrality) was lauded in some quarters:

'The Internet is “best protected by geeks” — like Mark Zuckerberg? — “rather than any government,” the media argued. It’s no big deal, said academics . This will “not affect Internet users and their use of the Internet,” ICANN echoed.'

Absent of government oversight, ICANN’s mission and charter has been compromised. It’s no longer accountable to the government - much to US officials' chagrin (a bit late for that) or the First Amendment., ICANN’s worldwide database of who owns which website and how to contact them, soon won’t be publicly available anymore.  And therein lies danger for all of us.

Now companies and law enforcement agencies which count on seeing this data to nab scammers, pirates, child pornographers, and other bad guys online will have no trail to follow.  With no one to staunch potentially worrisome hiring practices - and with no government oversight - the concern is that these problems could morph into something much larger. It’s the opposite of government mission creep - which I’ve often written about.  Individual employees could gain the power to bring the entire Internet to heel.

Some examples: an ICANN employee could conceivably punish Russia for election meddling, or "resist" a democratic nation that elects a controversial leader (have anyone in mind?) by disabling their Internet domain - something that has been going on for a while, anyway without any rebellious ICANN employees, thank you. But even if something like that doesn’t happen, the arbitrary, unaccountable ICANN wields enough power to determine, for example, whether the disputed dot-amazon domain is given to Brazil’s rain-forest or to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos?

If it comes down to money, as it often does, ICANN, because of its bloated bureaucracy, generous perks and salaries, and the aforementioned mismanagement, is a financial basket-case awash in red ink. That’s to be expected by an unaccountable non-profit company, but there are worse dangers lurking on the horizon - not only for ICANN but, by association, the Internet at large, because Obama’s government let them loose to operate with impunity.

Now no longer under the American flag, nations like the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, China, and India) may decide to break away and form their own versions of the Internet. The European Union, already going its own way with the GDPR, is another candidate to form a friendlier splinter Internet. All this is going about quietly, furtively, while in the US the focus is on Facebook, privacy., and (lamentably) -extra-marital sexcapades more than a decade old. It’s time we got woke.

Editors note: Stan's views are his alone and should not be seen as reflecting those of other staff. Our official line is far better represented by this article which concludes:

"It is only a minority of Republican supporters that are making the claim that Obama has ‘given the Internet away.’ An opinion that on the whole can be understood to just be nutty propaganda. The vast majority of people feel that the US not having sole control over ICANN is a good thing, and the shift is being hailed a historic moment for the Internet."

Image credit: By Profit_Image/Shutterstock.

Written by: Stan Ward

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him.


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