European Commission to Propose Steps to Curb U.S. Influence Over Key Web Functions, Commission says NSA revelations call into question US role in internet governance, which should be more global
BRUSSELS—The European Union’s executive body is raising pressure to reduce U.S. influence over the Internet’s architecture amid what it called weakened confidence in the network’s governance after revelations of U.S. surveillance.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, will propose on Wednesday the adoption of “concrete and actionable steps” to globalize essential Web functions—including the assignment of so-called top-level domain names, such as “.com” or “.org”—that remain contractually linked to the U.S. government, according to a draft policy paper seen by The Wall Street Journal.
The European executive arm will also propose establishing a timeline for fully internationalizing the U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees key aspects of the Internet’s infrastructure to ensure digital traffic is routed properly, the document says.
“Large-scale surveillance and intelligence activities have…led to a loss of confidence in the Internet and its present governance arrangements,” the document states.
The EU proposal builds on steady European pressure in recent years to speed up the internationalization of the Internet’s governance. It also attempts to position the bloc as a key broker in coming negotiations over technical rules governing the Internet—bridging a gap between the U.S. and countries such as Russia and China, which have pushed for more government control of the Web.
The U.S. Commerce Department has said it is in favor of—and is participating in—discussions over the future of Internet governance. But it hasn’t weighed in specifically on whether it would cede indirect control of certain elements of Internet architecture that it grants to ICANN under contract.
“The U.S. government appreciates the thoughtful leadership of the Internet technical community on this important issue,” Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence E. Strickling said in a speech last month. “We want to work collectively to make multi-stakeholder governance more inclusive while maintaining the stability of the open and innovative Internet.”
By pushing for less U.S. control of the Internet, the European Commission is aligning itself in some ways with Brazil, which has struck a particularly strident tone over Internet governance in the wake of news reports alleging the U.S. government spied on Brazilians, including President Dilma Rousseff. The country has called for more international control, and is hosting a conference on the future of Internet governance in April.
Still, Europe appears to be in agreement with the U.S. on some questions of how a more international Internet would work. The U.S. has opposed, for instance, efforts to give the United Nations telecommunications arm or other government bodies control of the Web—arguing that doing so could create a Balkanized Internet and enable censorship. The EU document also explicitly rules out calling for a new international legal instrument to address issues of Internet governance.
“The Internet should remain a single, open, free, unfragmented network of networks, subject to the same laws and norms that apply in other areas of our day-to-day lives,” according to the EU document. “Its governance should be based on an inclusive, transparent and accountable multi-stakeholder model.”
The coming year will be a decisive one for Internet governance, which covers everything from whether domain names can be written in Cyrillic text, to the systems for routing Web traffic. April’s Brazil conference, titled the Multi-stakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, is the first major volley, which the U.S. plans to attend. The U.N.’s telecoms arm meets in South Korea in October.
There have already been some moves to globalize ICANN, technically a California-based nonprofit organization, which talks frequently about its aim to be truly global. Last year, it opened operational hubs in Singapore and Istanbul. But a key function of managing root Web names is still granted under a U.S. government contract to ICANN that the U.S. has an option to renew next year.
Some lobbyists warn against a too heavy-handed approach to change, arguing governments risk stifling the Internet if they take too much control through technical means or governance. “When you see intergovernmental, it means governments only,” said Frédéric Donck of the Internet Society, which lobbies on matters related to governance. “That is not what we see as a solution.”
5 Takeaways From the EU Gambit
Disclosures about U.S. spying of digital communications are giving new momentum abroad to calls to limit U.S. influence over the Internet:
1 The U.S. still rules much of the Web’s architecture
Currently, the U.S. government contracts the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), technically a nonprofit organization based in California, to oversee vital aspects of the Internet’s infrastructure to enable the flow of its traffic.
2 What the EU wants from the U.S.
The European Commission proposal is expected to call for a firm timetable to transition to fully globalize governance of Web functions, including the assignment of top-level domain names, such as “.com”. It also wants to fully internationalize ICANN.
3 The two sides aren’t so far apart
The EU proposal lends support to Brazil, another vocal proponent for more global control of the Internet, but still backs a number of U.S. positions on how more international governance should function.
4 The U.S. hasn’t said how much control it would give up
The U.S. has said it advocates moving to a more international system of Internet governance. But it hasn’t disclosed whether it would be willing to cede indirect control of the functions it contracts to ICANN.
5 More governments involved doesn’t please everyone.
Some lobbyists warn against a too heavy-handed approach to change, arguing that governments risk stifling the Internet if they take too much control through technical means or via the Internet’s governance. “When you see intergovernmental, it means governments only,” said Frédéric Donck of the Internet Society, which lobbies on matters related to governance. “That is not what we see as a solution.”