U.S. officials announced plans Friday to relinquish federal government control over the administration of the Internet, a move likely to please international critics but alarm some business leaders and others who rely on smooth functioning of the Web.
Pressure to let go of the final vestiges of U.S. authority over the system of Web addresses and domain names that organize the Internet has been building for more than a decade and was supercharged by the backlash to revelations about National Security Agency surveillance last year.
“The timing is right to start the transition process,” said Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information. “We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.”
The practical consequences of the decision were not immediately clear, but it could alleviate rising global complaints that the United States essentially controls the Web and takes advantage of its oversight role to help spy on the rest of the world.
U.S. officials set strict conditions and an indeterminate timeline for the transition from federal government authority, saying that a new oversight body must be created and win the trust of crucial stakeholders around the world, officials said. An international meeting to discuss the future of Internet is scheduled for March 24, in Singapore.
The announcement essentially ruled out the possibility that the United Nations would take over the U.S. role, something many nations have advocated and U.S. officials have long opposed.
The looming change — if successfully executed — would end or at least dramatically alter the long-running contract between the U.S. Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a California-based non-profit group that goes by the acronym ICANN. That contract is due to expire next year but could be extended if the transition plan is not complete.
“I welcome the beginning of this transition process that you have outlined. The global community will be included in full,” said Fadi Chehade, president of ICANN.
Rumors that the U.S. government would step out of its oversight role sparked concerns among those who long have maintained that ICANN did not do enough to protect security online.
“To set ICANN so-called “free” is a very major step that should done with careful oversight,” said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. “We would be very concerned about that step.”
Yet other groups saw the move away from U.S. oversight as inevitable and expressed support for the process if it’s open and embraces the needs of people who use the Internet around the world.
“This is a step in the right direction to resolved important international disputes about how the Internet is governed,” said Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge, a group that promotes open access to the Internet.
Verizon, one of the world’s biggest Internet providers, issued a statement saying, “A successful transition in the stewardship of these important functions to the global multi-stakeholder community would be a timely and positive step in the evolution of Internet governance.”
ICANN’s most important function is to oversee the assigning of Internet domains — such as .com, .edu and .gov — and ensure that the various companies and universities involved in directing digital traffic do so safely. ICANN is midway through a massive and controversial expansion that is adding hundreds of new domains, such as .book, .gay and .army, to the Internet’s infrastructure.
It long has faced complaints that the highly profitable domain name industry, which sells individual Web addresses for hefty markups, had established practical control over ICANN, to the detriment of other users. Rumors that the U.S. government would relinquish control were enough to alarm some business leaders on Friday.
Chehade addressed such concerns, saying, “Nothing will be done in any way to jeopardize the security and stability of the Internet.”
Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.