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How the U.S. Outsmarted Everyone by Giving Up the Internet

The U.S. may have kept China and Russia from gaining influence over the Internet by announcing a plan to keep less control for itself.

On Friday, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, quietly announced that it is giving up remaining U.S. control of the Internet’s domain naming system to the broader international community.

Critics quickly expressed concern that the handover could make the Internet less secure. Former House Speaker New Gingrich took to Twitter to ask: “What is the global internet community that Obama wants to turn the internet over to? This risks foreign dictatorships defining the Internet.”

But Matthew Prince, co-founder of the company Cloudflare, said that giving up control of DNSin the way that NTIA did it — was actually a savvy move that will keep the Internet more open to citizens and less controllable by dictatorships.

“I think the general story is completely wrong,” he said.

The shrewdness of the move rests in a little-noticed section of the Friday press release, which states: “NTIA will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”

That one caveat is key, Prince says, to making sure that the Internet continues to operate in the way that it does, bottom-up and user-driven — and not according to the whim of Beijing or Moscow.

“The real story is that the U.S. has pre-empted the argument that any government should have control of the Internet. Instead, it says that the Internet is a network defined by a collection of different stakeholders that must be governed by the bottom up rather than a traditional top down approach. I think it was a brilliant move to make sure that the Internet stays what it is,” Prince said.

The form that the transition, planned since 1997, will take has yet to be determined, but the California-based Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN will be running the process

Here’s what’s specifically up for grabs: the ability to make changes to the domain name system or DNS and the database containing the world’s top-level domains. The domain name system is essentially how you find every web site and email on the Internet. It’s what links an IP address to a specific URL, so when you type in a web site, you are taken immediately to the numerical address of the computer where that web site is hosted.

Russia and China have led a strong effort to put more control of the Internet under the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, which would effectively give those governments greater say in how the Internet is run. The ITU is the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies. Internet watchers expected Russia, China or the UN to make a big push for more ITU control during an upcoming ITU meeting in Busan, South Korea. By making this move now, Prince said, the U.S. renders that strategy unworkable.  

“Now, when China stands up and says we want a seat at the table of Internet governance the U.S. can say ‘no. The Internet should be stateless.’ They’re in a much stronger position to make that argument today than they were before,” Prince said.

(Image by JMiks via Shutterstock)