(Adds interview with ICANN chief, recasts with focus on Russia
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, April 2 The head of a nonprofit that
manages the infrastructure of the Internet defended on Wednesday
the U.S. government's move to cede oversight of the body, and
downplayed concerns that Russia, China or other countries could
exert control and restrict the web's openness.
The Obama administration last month said it would relinquish
oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and
Numbers, or ICANN, which controls the "address book" of the
Internet, the master database of top-level domain names such as
.com and .net.
It also helps keep order of the web by managing the numeric
addresses that are assigned to each web address to ensure users
find proper content when they look for websites.
The United States, which gave birth to the Internet, has
overseen the process but since 1998 has contracted it out to
ICANN. Since then, the Department of Commerce has planned to
phase out its stewardship and has taken many steps toward that.
The U.S. contract with ICANN will expire in September 2015,
and last month the Commerce Department said it plans to formally
turn the oversight capacity, which it says has become symbolic,
over to a global multi-stakeholder mechanism that the ICANN
community will propose.
The plan has provoked a backlash among some conservatives
and other critics who say it may allow countries interested in
limiting their citizens' access to some information on the web,
such as China or Russia, to use ICANN as a venue to push for
more restrictive Internet governance policies.
On Wednesday, the head of ICANN said the multi-stakeholder
model - with governments, the private sector and other
interested parties reaching consensus with equal power - will
continue to restrain countries seeking to limiting the web's
openness and freedom.
"Everyone is focused on these three, four countries ... but
in between we have 150 other countries that value the same
values we do," ICANN's chief executive, Fadi Chehadé, said in an
interview after a congressional hearing.
"Our commitment to the multi-stakeholder model is not so
much for the few who do not believe in it, it should be to the
great middle mass that would like to see us stand by it and they
will stand with us. This is the bet we need to make."
Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Strickling also
defended the move at the House of Representatives'
communications and technology subcommittee hearing.
"No one has yet to explain to me the mechanism by which any
of these individual governments could somehow seize control of
the Internet as a whole," Strickling said.
"Do you really think that (Russian President) Vladimir Putin
... can't figure out some way to get control? China and Russia
can be very resourceful," Louisiana Republican Representative
Steve Scalise fired back.
"The multi-stakeholder model, it stops them," Chehadé told
lawmakers in response. "I agree that people will talk about
capturing (control of ICANN), but they haven't. For 15 years
ICANN has operated without one government or any government
capturing the decision making."
Other governments have recently pressed for the United
States to formally shed its stewardship over ICANN in the wake
of disclosures from former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward
Snowden. Documents he released showed that U.S. intelligence
officials scan vast amounts of Internet traffic.
The move was welcomed by various technology companies and
consumer advocacy groups, but faces a political backlash.
Three House members have introduced legislation that would
prevent the Commerce Department from shedding stewardship of
ICANN's work before Congress reviews a nonpartisan study of what
the move would entail.
In the meantime, ICANN is deliberating on how to set up a
new oversight mechanism, which U.S. officials promised would not
be limited to governments.
Discussions began last week at ICANN's meeting in Singapore,
and the output from those talks is expected to be publicly
posted for further comment on April 7, Chehadé said.
Both he and Strickling pledged to not rush the process.
"If we don't get this right, there's a whole world of damage
that could be done," Chehadé said in the interview.
"If we finish it in 18 months, great. If we don't, then you
know what, it doesn't matter, let's get it right."
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Richard
Chang and Leslie Adler)