Transfer of control a boon to the Internet

Last Saturday, something major happened on the Internet but you did not feel it while you were surfing and that was as it should be.

That was the day the master directory of all website addresses in the world stopped coming under the oversight of the US government. The master directory will continue to be kept by the company currently in charge of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority or IANA; but as of Oct 1, IANA is no longer accountable to any government. Instead, it is accountable to the Internet community.

That seeming non-event - called the IANA Transition - had been in the works for more than two years and had been welcomed by the Internet community. But for a while, it looked as if it might not happen.

First, US Senator Ted Cruz, once in the running to be a presidential candidate, proposed a resolution that was prudently not adopted by the Senate. And then four American states sued to stop the transition. Here, possibly thanks in part to an amicus curiae (friend of the court) filing by 11 Internet associations and four senior technical executives in the Internet space, the judge threw out the suit and so the transition went ahead.

The main objection to the transition is the perception that the US is "giving away" control over the Internet, which it had invented. Such a giving away would, so the narrative goes, play into the hands of Russia and China.

In political science literature, those putting forth such arguments are "ignorant patriots" because they misunderstand what IANA does. And although patriotic, if they do get what they want, the result will be contrary to their interests: not having the transition would play into the hands of Russia and China.

To understand this, one has to appreciate some background.

To cut a long story short, IANA was doing what one person did for the Internet in the 1980s. That person was Mr Jon Postel, also called the god of the Internet because he kept the master directory of Internet addresses.

As the Internet became more commercial, then US President Bill Clinton wanted to privatise this function. That is, instead of having the US government oversee it, the entire process would be run by the private sector and the Internet community.

But that never quite happened. A series of meetings, the third and final in Orchard Hotel in Singapore in the late 1990s, ended inconclusively and the US government decided to put the directory functions into the non-profit company called Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). (Singapore had another part to play too when the first Icann meeting was held here in March 1999.) Icann, however, was under the oversight of the US Department of Commerce.

The question that was asked by governments of countries such as Russia and China was: would it be possible for the US government to unilaterally cut off their countries from the Internet? The addressing system to reach .ru (for Russia) and .cn (for China) ran through servers in the US, so what if the US decided to delete .ru and .cn from the computer records?

Well, that has never happened. Sort of.

Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the .iq domain name was taken offline. That is, it was impossible to register or to reach a website that ended with .iq. It turned out that the registry for the domain name was run not by one of Saddam Hussein's cronies but by a Palestinian Arab living in Texas. He and his brothers, the Elashis, were charged with the unauthorised sale of computer parts to Syria and he was languishing in jail when the invasion began.

(Americans are typically shocked when I present the news clipping from the UK newspaper The Register. They had never heard the news. And indeed, no daily from any of the major cities in the US carried the news when it happened.)

This issue was resolved in 2005 after a 40-member Working Group of Internet Governance was appointed by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to study the subject of Internet governance and recommend measures. (I was one of the 40 appointed to the said Working Group.) The report was presented to the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis where it was agreed that every country would have sovereignty over its country-code domain name.

That is, for example, the US government cannot delete the country-code domain name of a country even if it were to go to war with it.

More recently, what has raised the concern and ire of governments and business was the Snowden revelations in 2013. Non-US companies began inserting into their contracts concerning their corporate information "anywhere but USA" clauses. US companies had to assure customers that their suppliers stored data outside of the US.

Consultancy company Forrester Research estimated that US companies would lose US$180 billion (S$245 billion) in business over the three years thence to this year. It is in this charged context that the US government finally said that it would privatise the master directory. It is an attempt to gain trust. It does not mean that there will be no snooping on data flows. But not to do so would risk the other countries leaving the Internet and creating an alternative.

The biggest loser in such a fragmentation - a Russian Internet, a Chinese Internet - would be the US. As at May of this year, 14 of the top 20 Internet companies in the world by market capitalisation are American; five are Chinese and one is Japanese. A fragmented Internet would mean a dramatically reduced market for the US companies.

The IANA Transition therefore actually preserves the status quo. Not to have the transition would give countries such as Russia and China the ammunition to call for a fragmented Internet.

The transition does raise other questions concerning the accountability of Icann, which has much room to improve its administrative efficiency. But for now, the Internet carries on as before.

Unless, of course, ignorant patriots appeal and get the judgment reversed.

•The writer is professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University. He was a member of the Working Group on Internet Governance and served as co-founder and inaugural chair of the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet) and the Asia-Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2016, with the headline 'Transfer of control a boon to the Internet'. Print Edition | Subscribe