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    Why the U.S. Government Isn't Really Relinquishing its Power over Internet Governance

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    Tuesday March 25, 2014
    Earlier this month, the U.S. government surprised the Internet community by announcing that it plans to back away from its longstanding oversight of the Internet domain name system. The move comes more than 15 years after it first announced plans to transfer management of the so-called IANA function, which includes the power to add new domain name extensions (such as dot-xxx) and to alter administrative control over an existing domain name extension (for example, approving the transfer of the dot-ca domain in 2000 from the University of British Columbia to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority).

    My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the change is rightly viewed as a major development in the ongoing battle over Internet governance. Yet a closer look at the why the U.S. is embarking on the change and what the system might look like once the transition is complete, suggests that it is not relinquishing much power anytime soon. Rather, the U.S. has ensured that it will dictate the terms of any transfer and retain a "super-jurisdiction" for the foreseeable future.



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    Why the U.S. Government Isn’t Really Relinquishing its Power over Internet Governance

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    Tuesday March 25, 2014
    Appeared in the Toronto Star on March 22, 2014 as Why the U.S. Government Isn't Really Relinquishing Power Over Internet Governance

    Earlier this month, the U.S. government surprised the Internet community by announcing that it plans to back away from its longstanding oversight of the Internet domain name system. The move comes more than 15 years after it first announced plans to transfer management of the so-called IANA function, which includes the power to add new domain name extensions (such as dot-xxx) and to alter administrative control over an existing domain name extension (for example, approving the transfer of the dot-ca domain in 2000 from the University of British Columbia to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority).

    The change is rightly viewed as a major development in the ongoing battle over Internet governance. Yet a closer look at the why the U.S. is embarking on the change and what the system might look like once the transition is complete, suggests that it is not relinquishing much power anytime soon. Rather, the U.S. has ensured that it will dictate the terms of any transfer and retain a "super-jurisdiction" for the foreseeable future.


    Day-to-day administration of the domain name system is currently managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a U.S.-based non-profit company that operates under a contract with the U.S. government. Critics argue that this means that the U.S. retains final authority over key Internet governance decisions. 



    The United Nations and supporting governments have attempted to loosen U.S. control on several prior occasions without success. Despite those failures, the U.S. now voluntarily says it will walk away from its oversight power, tasking ICANN with developing a transition plan that must "support and enhance the multistakeholder model." The U.S. adds that it will not accept a proposal based on a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution, short-circuiting any hopes the U.N. might have had for assuming control.



    Why is the U.S. proposing to walk away now? In recent months, there has been growing momentum to revisit the issue, triggered by the Edward Snowden revelations of widespread Internet surveillance. Although NSA surveillance has no real connection to Internet governance - the management of the domain name system is not typically a surveillance target - the issue has galvanized many countries and groups who sense an opportunity for change. By forcing the issue, the U.S. has successfully seized the agenda and set the conditions for a transfer of power.

    While a transfer would be perceived by many to represent a change in control, the reality is that the U.S. will not be relinquishing much power even when (or if) the transition occurs. In the years since the U.S. first indicated that it would shift away from Internet governance, it has steadily erected jurisdictional authority over a considerable portion of the Internet infrastructure.  



    For example, in 2009 the U.S. and ICANN entered into an agreement that institutionalized "the technical coordination of the Internet's domain name and addressing system." That document included a commitment for the U.S. to remain involved in the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), the powerful body within ICANN that allows governments to provide their views on governance matters. It also contained an ICANN commitment to remain headquartered in the U.S., effectively ensuring ongoing U.S. jurisdiction over it.

    
Not only is the U.S. able to assert jurisdiction over ICANN, but it has also asserted jurisdiction over all dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org domain names. In 2012, a U.S. court ordered the seizure of a dot-com domain that was registered in Canada with no U.S. connection other than the location of the domain name registry. This effectively means the U.S. retains jurisdiction over half of all domain name registrations worldwide regardless of where they are registered or who manages the system.



    The U.S. might transition away from the current model (though the initial 2015 date seems ambitious), but much of its jurisdictional power will remain largely unchanged. The latest announcement has the potential to fulfill a promise made nearly two decades ago, but skeptics can be forgiven for suspecting that power over Internet governance will remain firmly rooted in the U.S. no matter how the issue is resolved.

    Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.


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    Secret Surveillance Puts Internet Governance System at Risk

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    Friday August 02, 2013
    One year ago, many Internet users were engaged in a contentious debate over the question of who should govern the Internet. The debate pitted the current model led by a United States based organization known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (supported by the U.S.) against a government-led, United Nations-style model under which countries such as China and Russia could assert greater control over Internet governance.

    The differences between the two approaches were never as stark as some portrayed since the current model grants the U.S. considerable contractual power over ICANN, but the fear of greater foreign government control over the Internet led to strong political opposition to UN involvement.

    While supporters of the current model ultimately prevailed at a UN conference in Dubai last December where most Western democracies, including Canada, strongly rejected major Internet governance reforms, the issue was fundamentally about trust. Given that all governments have become more vocal about Internet matters, the debate was never over whether government would be involved, but rather about who the global Internet community trusted to lead on governance matters.

    My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues that the Internet governance choice was a relatively easy one at the time, but in recent weeks the revelations about widespread U.S. secret surveillance of the Internet may cause many to rethink their views. Starting with the first disclosures in early June about the collection of phone metadata, the past two months have been marked by a dizzying array of reports that reveal a massive U.S. surveillance infrastructure that covers the globe and seeks access to virtually all Internet-based communications.


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    Secret Surveillance Puts Internet Governance System at Risk

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    Friday August 02, 2013
    Appeared in the Toronto Star on July 27, 2013 as Secret Surveillance Puts Internet Governance System at Risk

    One year ago, many Internet users were engaged in a contentious debate over the question of who should govern the Internet. The debate pitted the current model led by a United States based organization known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (supported by the U.S.) against a government-led, United Nations-style model under which countries such as China and Russia could assert greater control over Internet governance.

    The differences between the two approaches were never as stark as some portrayed since the current model grants the U.S. considerable contractual power over ICANN, but the fear of greater foreign government control over the Internet led to strong political opposition to UN involvement.

    While supporters of the current model ultimately prevailed at a UN conference in Dubai last December where most Western democracies, including Canada, strongly rejected major Internet governance reforms, the issue was fundamentally about trust. Given that all governments have become more vocal about Internet matters, the debate was never over whether government would be involved, but rather about who the global Internet community trusted to lead on governance matters.

    The Internet governance choice was a relatively easy one at the time, but in recent weeks the revelations about widespread U.S. secret surveillance of the Internet may cause many to rethink their views. Starting with the first disclosures in early June about the collection of phone metadata, the past two months have been marked by a dizzying array of reports that reveal a massive U.S. surveillance infrastructure that covers the globe and seeks access to virtually all Internet-based communications.

    The surveillance programs include phone metadata collection that captures information on billions of calls, access to data from Internet giants such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft (which may even include user passwords), and the monitoring of Internet traffic through undersea cables around the world. Moreover, the surveillance activities involve the active co-operation of the same governments that support the U.S. on Internet governance, including the United Kingdom and Canada.

    Not only do the surveillance programs themselves raise enormous privacy and civil liberties concerns, but oversight and review is conducted almost entirely in secret with little or no ability to guard against misuse. In fact, U.S. officials have now acknowledged providing inaccurate information on the programs to elected politicians, raising further questions about who is watching the watchers.

    The surveillance programs have emerged as a contentious political issue in the U.S. and there are several reasons why the reverberations are likely to extend to the global Internet governance community.

    First, the element of trust has been severely compromised. Supporters of the current Internet governance model frequently pointed to Internet surveillance and the lack of accountability within countries like China and Russia as evidence of the danger of a UN-led model. With the public now aware of the creation of a massive, secret U.S.-backed Internet surveillance program, the U.S. has ceded the moral high ground on the issue.

    Second, as the scope of the surveillance becomes increasingly clear, many countries are likely to opt for a balkanized Internet in which they do not trust other countries with the security or privacy of their networked communications.  This could lead to new laws requiring companies to store their information domestically to counter surveillance of the data as it crosses borders or resides on computer servers located in the U.S. In fact, some may go further by resisting the interoperability of the Internet that we now take for granted.

    Third, some of those same countries may demand similar levels of access to personal information from the Internet giants. This could create a "privacy race to the bottom", where governments around the world create parallel surveillance programs, ensuring that online privacy and co-operative Internet governance is a thing of the past.

    Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.


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