Since 1998, U.S. policy  has held that the Internet’s “IANA functions” — the technical functions collectively referred to as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, administered by ICANN.org  — will ultimately belong to the world.
In this context, “the world” has been understood to mean not merely the world’s governments, but also other “stakeholders.” These may include national and international business entities, nongovernmental organizations, individual citizens, and everybody else who has a “stake” in the Internet’s successful operation.
But even as the process of moving these basic Internet functions to a global stakeholder model inches forward, other national governments eye the transition with suspicion, wondering how they can use (or delay) the process to advance their national interests. So it’s perhaps surprising that our own government, after more than 15 years of national policy designed to keep basic Internet functions outside the realm of politics, is now having second thoughts—largely due to political considerations.
Key among those political interests have been American copyright industries and pharmaceutical industries. They’re worried that if the distance between the U.S. government and the handling of IANA functions becomes too great, they’ll lose a key point of leverage to protect their own businesses.
At first glance, the copyright and drug-company anxieties may not seem to make sense. The IANA functions center on things like Internet-protocol addresses (“IP addresses”), domain names and technical protocols developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). By contrast, trademark holders’ concerns are clearer; domain names easily can be used to dilute trademarks and confuse the marketplace.
But movie and music companies, like drug companies, long have seen the administration of these basic Internet functions—especially the administration of domain names—as a potentially powerful tool to deter or prevent copyright and patent infringement.
Such issues are central to today’s House Judiciary Committee hearing  on the “.sucks” domain. It featured prepared testimony from copyright industry partisans—notably and most handwringingly, from the Coalition for Online Accountability , a trade association created to represent other copyright trade associations—who worry quite a lot about the loss of this potential tool.
Even if we assume the copyright and drug companies’ arguments are logical (we’re being generous here), there already are national and international enforcement frameworks that allow rights-holders to pursue infringers around the world, through the United Nations and through bilateral and multilateral treaties. The final transition of the IANA functions to multi-stakeholder, nongovernmental, international governance does not itself pose any threat to these well-entrenched, well-funded, international enforcement mechanisms.
More importantly, if the Internet is to continue functioning as an international platform that connects the world, we all have to dodge the temptation to impose extraneous enforcement obligations on the Internet, whose fundamental design is grounded in connecting us, not disconnecting us.
- “U.S. policy”: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/files/ntia/publications/6_5_98dns.pdf
- “ICANN.org”: https://www.icann.org/
- “House Judiciary Committee hearing”: http://judiciary.house.gov/index.cfm/hearings?ID=7E5AF16E-B1F8-45B8-803B-9E389A9B745E
- “Coalition for Online Accountability”: http://judiciary.house.gov/index.cfm/hearings?Id=7E5AF16E-B1F8-45B8-803B-9E389A9B745E&Statement_id=F3F5D979-C539-4134-9AB8-C385106427D3