The U.S. hold on the Internet is slipping, as core systems for managing the Internet begin opening to foreign influence.
A working group of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has proposed placing a wall in front of information about who owns each Web domain. The move is being criticized for giving too much power to one group.
ICANN is a nonprofit organization that preserves the stability of the Internet. It takes care of several core elements including maintaining the integrity of WHOIS information, overseeing Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, and managing top-level domain space. ICANN assumed these responsibilities from the U.S. government in 1998.
John Horton, president of LegitScript, told CSOonline that what the working group’s proposal misses “is that WHOIS data isn’t separate from the Internet—it’s part of the Internet itself, and they are trying to centralize global control over who gets to access that key Internet information, what can be done with it, and why.”
Information on who owns each Web domain and how to contact them is run by WHOIS. It was created in 1982 to make it easier to contact a domain operator if something went wrong. While there are security problems with having information on WHOIS records open to the public, having a closed system would bring problems of its own.
Key concerns around a closed system are who will decide when to give out information, and who will be eligible to receive such information.
The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) stated in August that problems could come up if a WHOIS database has a gatekeeper, as that person “would likely lack the capacity to identify and/or reject illegitimate or overly broad requests.”
The CDT states, “ICANN is unique and must act in an extra-jurisdictional capacity, so it is difficult to see how this new WHOIS would deal with, for example, a Chinese law enforcement request targeting a citizen of another country.”
The proposal for closing access to WHOIS ties to the weakening hold of the United States over ICANN.
In April, following the 46th ICANN meeting in Beijing, ICANN broke from its foundation in Los Angeles and opened two additional branches. One in Singapore will serve the Asia–Pacific and Europe, and another in Istanbul will serve the Middle East and Africa.
During the Beijing meeting, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade also announced that in order to shift ICANN’s “center of gravity” away from the United States, it would build its first local engagement center in Beijing, according to Intellectual Property Watch, which monitors international IP policy.
It states that Chehade said not making an ICANN office in China would cause it to lose some legitimacy.
China and Russia have been pressing for influence over ICANN for years, and the recent shifts are evidence they’re getting what they asked for.
Control over ICANN was a key part of debates in December 2012, when nations from around the world gathered in Dubai to discuss online regulations at the World Conference on International Telecommunications.
At the conference, according to the technology website Softpedia, “With no warning, several countries have made a proposal which would make it possible to effectively control IPs and domain names on a local level, superseding what ICANN and IANA are currently in charge of.”
The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) is a department of ICANN that maintains IP addresses and Country Code Top Level Domains.
Softpedia states that the proposals came from countries including Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Sudan.
A leaked draft of the Russian proposal for the conference detailed its call for “equal rights to manage the Internet including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering,” according to Reuters. It reported the move could undermine the responsibilities of ICANN.
With the new branch of ICANN in China and a loosening grip on the organization that oversees the core Internet, the question now is will the proposals for controlling IPs and domain names at the local level pass, and how much further will ICANN’s mission be influenced by China and Russia?