The Commerce Department announced Friday that it will give the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), an international nonprofit group, control over the database of names and addresses that allows computers around the world to connect to each other.
Administration officials say U.S. authority over the Internet address system was always intended to be temporary and that ultimate power should rest with the “global Internet community.”
But some fear that the Obama administration is opening the door to an Internet takeover by Russia, China, or other countries that are eager to censor speech and limit the flow of ideas.
“If the Obama Administration gives away its oversight of the Internet, it will be gone forever,” wrote Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Castro argued that the world “could be faced with a splintered Internet that would stifle innovation, commerce, and the free flow and diversity of ideas that are bedrock tenets of world’s biggest economic engine.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, called the announcement a “hostile step” against free speech.
“Giving up control of ICANN will allow countries like China and Russia that don’t place the same value in freedom of speech to better define how the internet looks and operates,” she said in a statement.
Critics warn that U.S. control of the domain system has been a check against the influence of authoritarian regimes over ICANN, and in turn the Internet.
But other advocacy groups, businesses, and lawmakers have praised the administration’s announcement—while also saying they plan to watch the transition closely.
The Internet was invented in the United States, and the country has always had a central role in its management. But as the Internet has grown, other countries have demanded a greater voice. Edward Snowden’s leaks about U.S. surveillance have only exacerbated that tension.