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As the U.S. government relinquishes control, who should oversee the Web?

March 24, 2014 at 6:39 PM EST
The Commerce Department recently announced it would give up oversight of ICANN, the California nonprofit that manages the unique domains of the world's websites and email servers. There's been international pressure to make the change, especially in light of revelations about NSA surveillance. Vint Cerf of Google and Randolph May of the Free State Foundation join Judy Woodruff to offer debate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Who controls the World Wide Web, and how is it overseen and governed? These are the questions that most of us don’t really know the answers to, but the Obama administration announced a change in the role played by the United States, one that’s stirring up concerns about the Internet’s future and freedom from censorship.

FADI CHEHADE, CEO, ICANN: To become the world’s ICANN, we have to go to the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Change was in the wind as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, kicked off a meeting in Singapore this weekend, its purpose, to start crafting a transition from U.S. control of administration of the Internet.

Since 1998, the California nonprofit has had a federal contract to manage the unique identifiers of the world’s Web sites and e-mail servers, regulating domain names such as dot-com and dot-gov.

Fadi Chehade is CEO of ICANN.

FADI CHEHADE: It’s been envisaged from the first day of ICANN’s creation that, at some point, at some point, when ICANN and the global community were deemed ready to carry on in their activities without the oversight of the U.S. government, that the U.S. government will let go of its unique involvement in the affairs of ICANN.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s been international pressure to make the change, fueled lately by the backlash over National Security Agency surveillance.

Then, on March 14, the Commerce Department announced plans to hand off supervision of ICANN to a new international entity. It drew some skeptical comments across the U.S. political spectrum, from Sarah Palin to former President Bill Clinton.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I just know that a lot of these so-called multistakeholders are really governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The shape of any new oversight body remains unclear, but ICANN’s board chairman, Steve Crocker, promises an open, inclusive process.

More now about how this has all has worked and what’s at stake.

Vint Cerf is a former chairman of the board of ICANN. He’s considered one of the fathers of the Internet and is now a vice president and so-called chief Internet evangelist for Google. And Randolph May is president and founder of the Free State Foundation. It’s a free-market-oriented think tank.

And we welcome you both to the program.

VINT CERF, Board Member, ICANN: Thank you.

RANDOLPH MAY, The Free State Foundation: Thank you, Judy.

So, Vint Cerf, let me start with you.

How do you explain to the public that doesn’t understand it, how much oversight is there right now of the Internet?

VINT CERF: Well, NTIA has provided very light oversight, in fact.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And remind us what NTIA is.

VINT CERF: Oh, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, which is a portion of the Department of Commerce.

And they have a contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to manage the unique identifiers of the Internet, the domain names, which everyone is familiar with, and the numerical Internet addresses, which most people know nothing about. But they’re kind of like telephone numbers that let you get to destination points in the Net.

The NTIA’s function since 1998 since the creation of this ICANN has simply been to oversee the practices by which changes are made to the way in which Internet addresses are allocated and the domain names are assigned, specifically what is called the root zone, which is the thing that points to the dot-com, the dot-net, the dot-org, the things that you’re all familiar.

All they have done is audit that process. They have never interfered with it. They have never made any changes to ICANN’s proposed administration of that top-level domain space. And so what’s being proposed is to replace that oversight with a multistakeholder process, not a new entity, but a multistakeholder process, that would assure that no changes get made to the root zone that aren’t agreed by the multiple stakeholders that rely upon it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So multiple stakeholders, Randy May, rather than the United States alone, and you have some concerns about that.

RANDOLPH MAY: I do have some concerns.

And my concerns relate to what will happen at the end of the process. Vint talks about a process almost as an end in itself, but ultimately there has to be — the U.S. is proposing at the end of the day that there be some new entity or some — you can call it what you will, but there has to be some organization that’s managing the Internet, this assignment of domain names.

And my concern is, we don’t know now, at the beginning of the process, what that entity will look like. But we do know, based on proposals that have been made by several countries in the past, Russia, China, Iran, that their vision of who should control the Internet includes some form of government control and government supervision.

So you have to be concerned about, at the end of the day, whether there can be an organization, entity, whatever, that is doing what ICANN does today, the entity that now controls the Internet, and whether there will be insulation from government control and how that will work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so multigovernment, and you sound like you’re worried that some of those governments may have interests here that are going to hurt the cause of the Internet, what the interview does.

RANDOLPH MAY: Well, they have stated — I think they haven’t been bashful, some of the governments, about their idea of how the Internet should work.

And, specifically, if we get to the nub of it, these governments, the ones I have mentioned and others, they have a different view of the free flow of information, whether the Internet shouldn’t be subject to censorship.

Of course, here and under ICANN, as a policy, you know, we endorse the free flow of information. Russia has said that it has a very different view of how that works.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vint Cerf, why shouldn’t that be a concern?

VINT CERF: So, it is a concern. Actually, we both share a concern that governments shouldn’t be solely responsible for what happens on the Internet. That’s why ICANN, when it was created, was created as a multistakeholder organization.

Governments are present in the governmental advisory committee, but the technical community, civil society and the private sector are all equal parties sitting at the table on policy development.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But can you guarantee going in that one or more governments that didn’t believe in the free flow of information couldn’t get the upper hand?

VINT CERF: Yes, well, the question is can they get the upper hand or not.

And I want to point out very clearly, first of all, that NTIA’s announcement on the 14th of March specifically said they wouldn’t accept a solution to…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, this is this federal…

VINT CERF: That was only governmental.

That’s important, because they don’t have to accept anything. At the end of this current contract period, in September, they can continue the contract if they decide that they don’t like the proposed outcomes.

Can I make one other point? It’s a technical point. It’s not possible for any government to force any other government to use anything other than the ICANN-produced root zone, which points to all the places in the Internet. There is no way to force that because of the technology.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If that’s the case, then…

VINT CERF: They can do it to themselves, but they can’t force someone else.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they can’t force other governments to go along.

RANDOLPH MAY: Look, Judy, I agree that, presently, under the present structure — and I think this is what Vint would agree with — governments, be it China or whomever, presently can interfere with Internet communications, they can block Twitter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Inside their own borders.

RANDOLPH MAY: Inside their borders. Turkey has been doing it in the past few days.

VINT CERF: We have noticed this.

RANDOLPH MAY: But here’s the point.

And I think it’s important. If we move to a new structure in which governments influence or control this new entity, and it becomes more or less the official policy, or if sanction is given to this type of censorship, then the fact that it happens today, that’s not a good thing, but I think it will be much more likely we will see that type of censorship and interference with the free flow of information, if we’re operating under a new regime in which that has become a policy that’s sanctioned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a way of guaranteeing, in other words, that it can’t happen down the road?

VINT CERF: Well, first of all, can I point out that we’re in agreement about the concern.

The thing is that you keep referring to new entity. The entity is ICANN. The proposal is ICANN will continue to do what it’s been doing for the last 15 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, ICANN is this…

VINT CERF: And it will do so in such a transparent way, in a way that offers assurance that they haven’t done anything that’s harmful to openness.

The whole idea is to create a process for oversight which is within the ICANN structure, not outside of it.

RANDOLPH MAY: Well, the Commerce Department announcement doesn’t say that, at the end of the day, it envisions that ICANN itself will be the entity that’s doing this. It doesn’t mention — it doesn’t say that. And I don’t think you…

VINT CERF: Larry Strickland has said that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I have a feeling this is something that we’re going to have to come back to in the future, but we have certainly launched the conversation in a robust way.

We appreciate it. Vint Cerf and Randolph May, thank you.

RANDOLPH MAY: Thank you, Judy.