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EU executive body supports less U.S. influence on Internet

Feb 12, 20144 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipTechnology Industry

NSA revelations prompt push for globalization of the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers

The European Union’s executive body has come out in favor of lessening U.S. influence over the Internet infrastructure, a move brought on by revelations of U.S. National Security Agency surveillance of online activity.

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The European Commission said Wednesday it would push for a “clear timeline for the globalization” of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

“The next two years will be critical in redrawing the global map of Internet governance,” Neelie Kroes, commission vice president, said in a statement. “Europe must contribute to a credible way forward for global internet governance. Europe must play a strong role in defining what the net of the future looks like.”

Countries have complained for years that U.S. involvement in ICANN give it too much influence over the root domain registries of the Internet, which control the routing of traffic into and out of nations. ICANN exists under the authority of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Over the last year, critics’ arguments have been bolstered by revelations of massive data gathering of Internet activity globally as part of the NSA’s anti-terrorism efforts. Media reports on the NSA’s work stem from documents taken from the agency by former contractor Edward Snowden.

Eli Dourado, research fellow at the Mercatus Center in George Mason University, said the EC proposals underscores “the foolishness of U.S. global surveillance policies, which have inspired an international backlash.”

“Its a shame that the U.S. has squandered its reputation as a leader in civil liberties by engaging in such overbroad global surveillance,” Dourado told CSOonline.

While not mentioning the NSA by name, the commission said its proposals came “in the wake of large-scale Internet surveillance and reduced trust in the Internet.” The commission said it was committed to globalizing decision-making and improving “transparency, accountability and inclusiveness” of countries dependent on the Internet for communications and commerce.

While supporting the EC’s push for more transparency in Internet governance, Dourado said, “until we know what exactly they mean by ‘globalization’ of ICANN and IANA, that aspect of their proposal is hard to evaluate.” (IANA, or the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, is the part of ICANN responsible for Internet protocol resources).

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Jacob Olcott, a principal on cybersecurity at Good Harbor Consulting and a former counsel for U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.VA., argued that the proposed changes were unnecessary because the U.S. did not have any more influence over Internet governance than any other country.

“It’s hard not to see this as political posturing,” Olcott said of the EC.

Much of the criticism of U.S. influence has been led by non-Western countries, such as China, Iran and Russia, which have an interest in more government control over the Internet to prevent political dissidence at home. Western nations have opted for less government involvement in order to foster freedom of speech and innovation.

Countries pushing for more international control over the Internet have tried to transfer governance to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is under the United Nations. Western countries fear ITU decisions would be unduly influenced by countries less supportive of a free Internet.

While the EC does not support ITU control over the Internet, its position, coupled with the international fallout from NSA activities, will likely lead to changes in Internet governance that result in less freedom on the Web, some experts say.

“There’s going to be changes. I think they’ll probably be bad and I think the Europeans should be careful what they wish for,” Paul Rosenzweig, former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said. “The loss of Western support for ICANN is going to lead to greater authoritarian control of the network.”