WASHINGTON — The United States will give up its role overseeing the system of Web addresses and domain names that form the basic plumbing of the Internet, turning it over in 2015 to an international group whose structure and administration will be determined during the next year, government officials said.
Since the dawn of the Internet, the United States has been responsible for assigning the numbers that form Internet addresses, the .com, .gov and .org labels that correspond to those numbers, and for the vast database that links the two and makes sure Internet traffic goes to the right place.
The function has been subcontracted since 1998 to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, an international nonprofit organization, with the expectation that the United States would eventually step back from its role.
That transition has taken on new urgency in the past year because of revelations that the U.S. intelligence community, particularly the National Security Agency (NSA), has been intercepting Internet traffic as part of its global-spying efforts.
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While other countries have called for the United States to turn over the keys to the system, many businesses, dependent on the smooth functioning of the Internet for their livelihood, have expressed concern about what form the new organization will take.
“We don’t want to break the Internet,” said Laura DeNardis, a professor at American University and author of “The Global War for Internet Governance.”
For consumers who use the Internet to stream movies or send email, nothing will change, if everything goes according to plan.
“We want to carefully transition to something that doesn’t just give the power to one stakeholder, but that takes into account the interests of private industry, of large users of the Internet, of the purchasers of domain names, of governments and of civil society,” DeNardis said.
Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said Friday that the United States will not accept a proposal that replaces it with a government-led or intergovernmental organization.
The Commerce Department also laid out principles that must govern any new body, including maintaining the openness of the Internet and maintaining its security and stability.
ICANN will conduct a meeting that will be the first step in the transition process, beginning March 23 in Singapore.
“We are inviting governments, the private sector, civil society and other Internet organizations from the whole world to join us in developing this transition process,” said Fadi Chehadé, president and chief executive of ICANN.
“All stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and governance of this global resource as equal partners.”
While the announcements were structured to portray a cooperative global community, there has been widespread hostility toward the United States since the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began releasing documents showing the extent of U.S. global spying.
Those spying programs had nothing to do with the role of the United States or ICANN in administering Internet addresses. But the perception that the United States was pulling all the strings led to a global uproar.
President Dilma Rousseff, of Brazil, canceled a planned visit to the United States last year and called the activities “an assault on national sovereignty and individual rights” and “incompatible with relations between friendly nations.’’
Brazil also announced it would host Net Mundial, a global meeting on Internet governance, in April in São Paulo to discuss the coming transition.
But by announcing its plans before the Brazil meeting, “the U.S. is trying to make sure the transition happens on its own terms, and that the U.S. is setting the rules for the transition,” said Greg Shatan, a partner at the law firm Reed Smith in New York.
With its statement that no government-led organization would take over ICANN, the United States also made clear that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations affiliate that oversees global telephone traffic, would not be allowed to take over Internet governance. That was an issue last year at an ITU conference in Dubai.
DeNardis said a key to a new governance structure would be to keep in place the expertise that currently allows the Internet to function smoothly.
“It is very easy to take the stability of the Internet for granted,” she said.