POLITICS

Internet future won't be free if countries control: commission report

11/26/2014 04:28 EST | Updated 01/26/2015 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - No one country or coalition of countries should be given administrative control over the Internet because that would undermine its freedom, an international commission examining the future of cyberspace concluded Wednesday.

And that includes the United States, which currently holds administrative control over the domain naming and the numbering of Internet IP addresses, says Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister who chairs the Global Commission on Internet Governance.

Doing so, Bildt said, would undermine international trust and the transparency of the Internet.

The commission, which includes two international think tanks — one Canadian, one British — came to that conclusion in an interim report released Wednesday after two days of meetings in Ottawa.

The commission's work comes after the United States announced earlier this year that it wants to stop being in control of the Internet's naming and numbering mechanism in September 2015.

That highly complex and technical function also has serious political ramifications because countries that censor Web access, such as China, are posturing for administrative control of it.

"If we hand it over only to states — and there are those who want that, the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians and the Saudis to take some obvious examples . . . then we will lose that vitality, that dynamism and openness that has been at the heart of the Internet for the past few decades," Bildt said.

There are also fears that some of those countries could opt out of the current administrative regime, which Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said would lead to a "balkanized" Internet.

Baird said in a speech Tuesday night that Canada endorses the commission's core finding: keeping much of the current architecture of the U.S.-led administration but essentially replacing that control function with an independent oversight body akin to the World Trade Organization that would hear disputes and ensure transparency.

"To do this in the long term, we must ensure that the Internet is run not just for and by governments, but also for and by the private sector and civil society," said Baird, who joked that the moniker for this proposal "'multistakeholder Internet governance' is not the snappiest or sexiest phrase."

The Obama administration served notice in March that it wants to give up its administrative oversight of the Internet as of September 2015. The U.S. Department of Commerce subcontracts this function to the California-based non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

The U.S. decision came after the international criticism sparked by the Edward Snowden leaks, which revealed the scope of spying activities by the U.S. National Security Agency.

The notice led to the creation of Bildt's commission, comprised of two think tanks — Waterloo, Ont.'s Centre of International Governance Innovation and Britain's Chatham House — which have been tasked with coming up with a new administration for the Internet.

Bildt said the U.S. effectively has a veto over giving up its leadership role. The U.S. wants to ensure that whatever system replaces it will ensure that the Internet is still free and open.

"If there is not a credible mechanism then I guess the U.S. government will not hand over, and things will continue as they are. From the point of view of functionality, fine," he explained.

"But in terms of the trust in the system, globally, I think it would be a serious setback and might open up for other states to try to grab control over the Net. We believe from the point of view of credibility it is extremely important that this actually happens according to the time plan."

There was immediate Republican opposition to the Obama White House's announcement of the planned handover in March.

Republican Newt Gingrich took to Twitter to say:

"Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the Internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous."

Fen Hampson, the head of CIGI's global security program, said the commission is emphasizing the importance of having a new system in place by the September 2015 deadline in part because of internal U.S. opposition.

"If we look at the constellation of forces in U.S. domestic politics, there's no guarantee that a new administration and a new Congress is going to agree to what President Obama has agreed to," said Hampson.

"So you will be stuck with a status quo and an erosion of political legitimacy."