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US handover of Internet oversight could spur censorship, some fear

Fadi Chehade, president and CEO of ICANN.jpg

Fadi Chehade, president and CEO of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), attends a meeting with Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (not seen) at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia October 9, 2013. (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)

Russian authorities shut down several websites critical of the government in the days before the country began its takeover of Crimea – a clear move to stifle debate and silence the opposition. But what if Russia could have prevented the creation of those sites in the first place?

That’s what some fear may happen soon, thanks to a new plan from the U.S. Commerce Department to loosen American control over ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- a group that administers the “telephone book” computers use to navigate the net. The nonprofit group creates and assigns top level domain names such as .net and .com.

And experts worry that as the U.S. cedes control over ICANN, which it has held since the days of pets.com and Altavista, censorship is bound to rise.

“Giving up control of ICANN will allow countries like China and Russia that don’t place the same value in freedom of speech to better define how the Internet looks and operates,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Monday.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, called it “very, very dangerous,” according to a report on Politico, adding that “Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the internet to an undefined group.”

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) department announced its plans to transition control of ICANN to a “multistakeholder” body late Friday night. The agency said this has been part of the long term plan since 1997.

“The timing is right to start the transition process,” said Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence E. Strickling. “We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.”

Some experts agree with that transition, noting that ICANN’s control over the Internet is “under the hood,” and therefore couldn’t possible lead to an increase in censorship. In other words, regardless of who steers the car, you can’t turn it into an airplane.

“Surveillance, content control, and government censorship of the Web are controversial and unsettling, but they have zip to do with Internet DNS,” wrote PCMag.com networking analyst Samara Lynn.

Still, the potential for increased authority by foreign countries that actively censor the Internet is concerning. For years, Russia and China have agitated at meetings of the Internet Telecommunication Union for increased control over the Internet, Businessweek noted.

“Several times in the last decade, a group of countries has urged that control of domain names be transferred to the United Nations. All you need to know about this movement is that it is led by China and Russia. In the very dull, very important meetings of the International Telecommunications Union, speeches by these countries feature the word ‘sovereignty.’”

The process will begin next week: ICANN said on Friday that it would kick off a dialogue about who exactly will sit on the governing body that replaces U.S. oversight during its 49th public meeting, which starts March 23 in Singapore.

The handover of ICANN is scheduled for September 2015.