Leaks lead to handover of web control

By Tim Walker

Snowden whistle-blowing prompts US Govt to yield net to the global digital community.

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The web may be thought of as being worldwide, but from its inception the internet was created, controlled and overseen largely by a single country: the United States.

Now, however, the US Government has said it intends to yield the reins to the global digital community.

The US Commerce Department says it has asked the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) to plan a handover to an as-yet-undefined group consisting of both private and public "stakeholders".

Fadi Chehade, the president and chief executive of Icann, said: "We are inviting governments, the private sector, civil society and other internet organisations from the whole world to join us in developing this transition process ... All stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and governance of this global resource as equal partners."

Observers say the decision was prompted by whistle-blower Edward Snowden's recent revelations, and that the subsequent backlash may have forced the Government to relinquish its historical control over the administration of the internet.

As Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington DC think-tank, put it, the US is "giving up its traditional bodyguard role of internet governance".

The internet was developed as a US Defence Department initiative during the 1960s, and it remained an American project even as it grew into a global consumer tool.

To maintain a unified, worldwide web, a single master list of web addresses was created, the Domain Name System (DNS). Jon Postel, a computer scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles, was the first person responsible for DNS, earning him the nickname "God".

When Postel died in 1998, the Commerce Department created Icann, a non-profit body based in Los Angeles which took over control of the web's crucial address list. Although Icann is nominally overseen by a selection of governmental and private "stakeholders", it is under contract from the US Government.

In the short-term, the changes are likely to have little effect on internet users' online experience. But observers say the planned handover is a concession designed to reassure other countries suspicious of the power the US wields over the web.

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