The battle over the future of the internet has begun in earnest. Bear with us: it's immensely technical, but it's also immensely important.
Because the internet first emerged, grew, and prospered in the United States, the US government has a special relationship and disproportionate influence over what is now regarded as a global public good. While the US is unwilling to relinquish its role as chief internet steward, this is becoming an increasingly untenable position, particularly as the NSA/Snowden revelations continue to shake global confidence.
In this context, and perhaps accelerated by last week's damning critiques in the European Parliament and the UN Human Rights Council, the US government announced late on Friday, in a smart front-footed move, that it intends to release oversight of its long-treasured IANA contract under which the US Commerce Department contracts ICANN, a private US company, to perform key internet administration tasks.
The government has proposed a transition plan for these tasks to be administered directly by the "global multistakeholder community" (read: ICANN), via a process to be determined by ICANN and approved by the US government in September 2015.
This prescriptive, carefully-limited announcement is the long-awaited fulfilment of a promise made 16 years ago when ICANN first came into being, and it would be the first time since the net's inception that the US government would abandon formal oversight.
Of course, US vested interests in ICANN as a US-based company, subject to US law, and partial to US industry, remain, as does the almighty US technical and economic leverage over the digital ecosystem.
You might think (and you'd be right), that it is rather odd that one country, and indeed one company, even holds this net administration contract. But such are the breaks of history and the clutch of commerce.
"We are moving inexorably towards a situation where enormous amounts of control are centred in private hands."
When the news broke, US media headlines read " US to relinquish control of the internet". The net, of course, is not strictly owned or controlled by anyone. Twitter quickly corrected the twits, making for the less hyperbolic " US to cede its oversight of addresses on internet".
However, like last week's accidental editorial elevation of Tim Berners-Lee to inventor of the entire internet (rather than the web), the first instinctive headline holds some truth, in practical, day-to-day terms.
The US does in many ways control the internet, politically, physically, and economically. Contrary to reactions by US conservatives, this recent move barely diminishes that control, at least not immediately. Instead, it marks an early strategic play by the US to control future discussions of net governance.
What it changes, to uncertain ends, is the balance of power between US public and private interests. We are moving inexorably towards a situation where enormous amounts of control are centred in private hands, often beyond the scope of effective regulation. This should be a matter of great concern.
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