Is the US giving up the keys to the internet?

A photo of an Icann video display during a conference in London on 13 June, 2012 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The US is set to hand over control of the internet domain name registration company Icann in September 2015

The US government recently announced that it would be handing off the reins of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), an organisation tasked with assigning and managing domain names and IP addresses worldwide.

While the transfer of power won't happen until September 2015 and has been planned since the organisation's creation in 1998, some reactions have been panicked, to put it lightly.

This transfer of power could mean the end of a single united internet, writes Keith Darnay for the Bismarck Tribune.

Darnay wonders what happens if September 2015 arrives and no organisation is ready to take control. Perhaps the US agrees to stay in a leadership position until the new digital overseers are in place, but other countries get nervous and start developing their own internets.

"Indeed, we may be living in the waning days of the Internet's 'Golden Age,'" he writes, "a time when we were tantalisingly close to being united in a single digital world."

John C Dvorak thinks that the US giving up Icann will change the course of the internet forever.

"Enjoy the internet while you can," he writes for PC Magazine. "America has waved the white flag. Decades from now, we will look back at the glory days fondly."

He continues:

Porn, of course, will be the first thing to go. We all know there is too much on the net and it is too freely available. But this is not the job for Icann. Will it become the job of the next group to come along? You can count on it. Forget net neutrality; content neutrality is over.

Others predict that the internet will fall under the sway of governments they fear are uninterested in electronic freedom.

"It's been a good month for Vladimir Putin: He got Crimea and the internet," writes L Gordon Crovitz of the Wall Street Journal.

The US has used its level of control to make sure that access to the internet and content is free from political interference, he writes. If the US follows through with this plan, the alternative is a weak international body fending off governments who will try to use their influence to silence their critics.

"China could get its wish to remove from the internet as an affront to its sovereignty," Crovitz writes. "Russia could force Twitter to remove posts by Ukrainian-Americans criticising Vladimir Putin."

The editors of the Orange County Register take issue with the explanations behind the future transfer. Along with many commentators, they point to the Edward Snowden revelations about the National Security Agency as the reason behind the US's decision to hand over Icann, the idea being that perhaps the US can buy back some global trust.

"Trading away control in exchange for the ephemeral - or completely illusory - goodwill of foreign governments is unforgivably naive and can only damage the causes of free speech and freedom of information for everyone," they write.

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Media captionJulian Assange speaks to the BBC's technology programme

Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks, counters that a division of the internet might not be such a bad thing.

"I think the impulse to do it is quite important and will lead to good things and should be supported," he told the BBC. "The devil is in the details in terms of how these communications links actually operate."

Mr Assange said that it would be difficult to build a European internet because of the number of backdoor deals conducted between Europe and the US. If those deals can't be stopped, than another organisation - presumably Assange's own Wikileaks - has to step up and publish what these governments are up to.

"For any organisation to be accountable, the buck has to stop with someone," he says.

Others are suggesting that we all try to understand the role of Icann a little bit better.

"The internet is a collective hallucination, one of the best humanity has ever generated," writes Jonathan Zittrain for New Republic. "To be sure, it is delicate in many ways, with its unowned character threatened from many quarters. But rest easy that Icann isn't one of them."

He says that it is almost impossible for Icann to get involved in a way that could prohibit free speech, as all it does is decide who runs each list of names. The US government has had little impact on how the organisation has run so far, he contends, and Icann cannot tax internet usage. If anyone tried to change that, there would be a powerful backlash.

"Anyone trying to tighten the screws too much will simply strip them," Zittrain writes.

Icann chief Fadi Chehade has published a blog post attempting to correct some inaccuracies and misconceptions.

He writes that giving up Icann is not the same as surrendering control of the internet. He adds that the move is not a response to Mr Snowden's information, would not lead to a division of the internet, and would not affect the general public. He believes critics are distracted by all of this misinformation and missing the larger point.

"Instead of politicising the debate over the US government's decision to transition stewardship of the internet's technical functions, let's move forward with the discussion we need to have - how to engage in the necessary discussion to develop an effective transition process, one that continues to ensure an open internet that belongs to everyone," he says.

Hiawatha Bray of the Boston Globe wonders why this transition is necessary. Why fix something that isn't broken?

He says he doesn't expect the handover to be a disaster, as the Obama administration has made clear that it intends to prevent any governments from taking control of the organisation. Ideally, Icann would be a truly independent agency with no motivation to censor or impose restrictions.

"Done right, it might work," he writes. "But today's Icann already works, and I can't think of a good reason to do away with it."

Whatever happens, the editors of the Washington Post think that the US is in the end responsible.

They write that the US commerce department has to ensure that the internet's new stewards are free from outside influences that would make it harder for them to do their important administrative work.

"The commerce department's contract with Icann expires next year," they note. "If the non-profit hasn't organised itself to ensure the continued functioning of an open, free and functional Internet by then, US authorities should not let global politics stop them from extending their supervision."

(By Kierran Petersen)

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