US election could trigger battle over Internet governance

cyber time bomb.jpg

This article is part of our special report Mobile World Congress.

SPECIAL REPORT / Officials attempting to reach a deal over the reform of Internet governance have told EURACTIV that delays and the “weaponisation” of the issue in the current US political climate are threatening to ignite an international dispute.

A September deadline is “almost certainly going to be missed”, an official told EURACTIV at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

The issue is likely to become enmeshed in gridlock in Washington, as the Obama Administration campaigns for the 2016 election.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a United States-based organisation, is attempting to transfer control over internet address registration from the US government’s Department of Commerce to a group of stakeholders. ICANN members include representatives from major web companies and domain name registries, governments and international organisations.

>> Read: US to surrender control of ICANN

Fadi Chehadé, the organisation’s president and CEO, recently said that it could be ready to become independent from the US government in a matter of months. The US contract with ICANN expires in September this year.

But “agreement on how a new stakeholder group should operate will not have been reached by then, almost definitely,” according to one source with close knowledge of the process who spoke to EURACTIV on condition of anonymity.

Agreement rests on the Department of Commerce agreeing to the terms of ICANN’s reform proposal. But complicated discussions over how ultimate control of internet address registration would operate under the so-called multi-stakeholder model are still ongoing.

Ghost of Dubai haunts internet debate

The issue is contentious because such control could theoretically blackball a country from the web. American policymakers fear the process could be ‘captured’ by a cabal of unsympathetic countries.

“The delay threatens to bring the ghost of Dubai back to life,” the source added, referring to an abortive attempt to put ICANN under the control of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN body, during an overhaul of that organisation’s rules which took place in 2012.

The effort to update the ITU rules giving the organisation ICANN’s powers collapsed in December 2012 after six EU member states joined the United States and Canada in refusing to agree a text at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai.

>> Read: Telecoms treaty sunk by US with EU allies

The US was concerned that references to the internet in the treaty might be used to legitimise censorship and – more controversially – enable commercial negotiations between telecoms networks and so-called ‘over-the-top providers’, especially large internet technology providers, such as Google and Microsoft.

“Some of those countries which supported the US back then will change their minds and start pushing for the process to be put into the hands of the UN if the process starts to drag on into 2016,” one source told EURACTIV.

“The problem is that some countries suspect that the US is just playing everyone along, and has no intention of really relinquishing control, and if the issue drags into next year they will claim they have been proved right,” another said.

Europe’s position will be crucial in the coming months, the sources said, since European support for the US at WCIT was patchy, but decisive, and that position could change if the predicted delay occurs.

ICANN officials will start touring European capitals over the next two months to canvass opinion on the latest drafts of reform proposals.

“The issue is set to ignite in September in a storm of ill-will and bad timing,” said one source, adding: “Obama has lost control of the Congress to the Republicans, and in the wake of the [Edward] Snowden allegations the issue of control over the internet is becoming politically weaponised in Washington.”

The campaign for the election which will take place in November 2016 will be fully under way by early next year.

The issue of governance was touched on by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler yesterday (3 March) at the Mobile World Congress in relation to net neutrality.

Wheeler was discussing his agency’s use of decades-old regulatory tools in putting together its new net neutrality. The FCC voted to approve net neutrality proposals last week in a split 3-2 decision, with Democrats outvoting Republican members of the commission.

The proposal called for a stricter set of rules that will treat broadband providers, including mobile operators, more like utilities.

“The basic question is if the Internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform in the history of the planet, can it exist without a referee? We need a referee to say ‘wait a minute, does that make sense?’ Do we have a set of rules that says that is just and reasonable?” Wheeler asked of delegates in Barcelona.

It is a question American politicians will certainly return to later this year.

Like telephones, the Internet relies on numbers which identify computers and allow them to connect to one another.

This identification process is coordinated at global level by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

ICANN was established as a not-for-profit corporation in 1998 with the backing of Washington. The agreement with the US administration has been renewed every three years up to the last renewal, signed in 2006.

ICANN is responsible for defining Internet domains, such as .com or .eu and for managing the Internet core directory.

The EU and other countries around the world have acknowledged the success story of the US-born Internet, but have increasingly challenged the United States' sole control of Internet governance.

>> Read our LinksDossier: The global battle to rule the Internet

  • September 2015: US government contract with ICANN expires
  • November 2016: US Presidential election

Subscribe to our newsletters