The decision was announced nonchalantly, in trademark Washington fashion on a Friday afternoon: The U.S. government will cede its last bit of control over the Internet.
The government has maintained that influence through contracts with the organization that administers the Internet, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. But a Commerce Department agency announced Friday that it would relinquish control over ICANN, presumably when its contract expires in September 2015. The office said it wants the group to next convene "global stakeholders" to come up with a transition plan -- a transition to what remains unknown.
But that sudden and highly controversial decision was years in the making, and it arguably dates back close to two decades. Further, despite the Internet being hatched in the U.S., the move to transfer control to the "global" community has accelerated in recent years -- under heavy pressure from foreign governments.
It came as little surprise, then, that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday praised the U.S. Commerce Department's decision.
"The Secretary-General takes note of this important development," a statement from Ban's office said, calling for all stakeholders to pursue a "single, open, free, secure and trustworthy Internet."
But whether that goal can be achieved is the big question. The decision Friday by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has raised concerns that, in the void left by America's transfer of oversight, other nations that don't share the United States' commitment to free speech and expression could make a grab at Internet influence.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said Tuesday that the current model of Internet governance has been a "tremendous" success, and he cautioned against moving too quickly to change it.
"Any proposal to change that model therefore demands rigorous scrutiny, including close congressional oversight. In particular, those advocating change must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their proposals would not increase the influence of repressive foreign governments over the Internet," Pai said in a statement. "If I am not convinced that a different governance structure would preserve Internet freedom, I will strongly oppose it."
Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan tech-focused D.C. think tank, wrote on his organization's website that the U.S. was effectively giving up its "bodyguard" role.
"While on the surface this may seem like a simple administrative decision that gives more control over this key Internet function to more stakeholders, it could actually have far reaching negative implications for the freedom and security of the Internet," he wrote.
The U.S. government does not technically control ICANN, but it nevertheless maintains significant oversight through the contractual agreements the Commerce Department has with the group. ICANN manages some of the most important elements of the Internet, including the domain name system and IP addressing. Domains are those tiny suffixes at the end of Internet addresses, like .com and .org and .gov.
The Commerce Department, whose contract with ICANN lasts through September 2015, stressed in its announcement that whatever system comes to replace the existing one will not give control to other governments.
"... NTIA will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution," the official announcement said.
Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, simply said in explaining the shift that "the timing is right to start the transition process."
Strickling has been talking for years about broadening the oversight of the Internet. In a July 2012 speech at an Internet governance forum, he discussed giving the "global Internet community" more of a "direct say" in the process, and he said the Obama administration was making a "concerted effort" to expand international participation.
In response to criticism of Friday's announcement, Strickling reiterated that a government body will not replace the NTIA role.
"Our announcement has led to some misunderstanding about our plan with some individuals raising concerns that the U.S. government is abandoning the Internet," he said in a statement. "Nothing could be further from the truth. This announcement in no way diminishes our commitment to preserving the Internet as an engine for economic growth and innovation."
The Committee on Energy and Commerce announced Tuesday that it will hold a hearing in the first week of April to investigate the matter, pledging to conduct "aggressive oversight following the recent announcement by the Obama administration on the future of Internet governance."
The latest push to transition oversight began with a 2009 agreement between NTIA and ICANN. The agency, though, noted that the goal of completely privatizing the domain name system dates back to 1997, and that the U.S. government reiterated that goal when it partnered with ICANN a year later.
But international pressure has undoubtedly been mounting in recent years, only to be fueled by anger over NSA spying -- which by itself has little to do with ICANN.
Some governments repeatedly have pushed for an Internet oversight body within the United Nations -- to adamant objections from U.S. lawmakers. The process formally started in 2003, when the U.N. agreed to study bringing in more international involvement. That report, released in 2005, said no individual government should play the primary role in overseeing the Internet.
This led to proposals to create U.N.-linked governance bodies, which U.S. officials opposed.
The U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union also held a major conference in Dubai in late 2012 to address these and other issues. Amid concern about the U.N. and its multitude of member states asserting more authority, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution advocating a "global Internet free from government control." The resolution was a direct message to the U.N., as countries like Russia, China and Sudan tried to undermine the current structure.
Nevertheless, Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA activities subsequently increased pressure on the U.S. But Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, wrote on the group's blog that the NSA controversy is a "pretext."
"While the NSA revelations have rightly angered many people around the world, they have nothing to do with Internet governance. The U.S. Department of Commerce has not once abused its oversight of ICANN to aid the intelligence community," he wrote, adding: "And if the Obama Administration gives away its oversight of the Internet, it will be gone forever."