Forty-seven years of U.S. government authority over the internet’s most basic functions is slated to end Saturday, not with a celebration or a wake but with the quiet expiration of a contract.

The agreement essentially gives a California-based nonprofit group the sole authority to organize cyberspace’s address book. And though this entity, the internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), has played this vital role for years, the retreat of U.S. control has sparked charges that President Barack Obama’s administration is abandoning the final vestiges of a crucial – if rarely exercised – oversight position.

The complaints have had a decidedly partisan cast. The campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has bashed the idea. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has sought to halt the move through legislation. Four Republican state attorneys general Friday unsuccessfully sought a restraining order from a federal judge.

“President Obama intends to give increased control of the internet to authoritarian regimes like China, Russia, and Iran,” Cruz said in a statement this week, after he tried and failed to add legislation to a congressional funding measure. “Like Jimmy Carter gave away the Panama Canal, Obama is giving away the internet.”

The internet, as technical experts have pointed out, is not owned by the United States and can’t be given away. Yet the symbolism of the moment is powerful. The network began as a Pentagon program during the Cold War, just months after the first moon landing in 1969. The United States is now retreating at a time when concerns over online crime and cyberwarfare are growing, and critics worry that rival nations such as China and Russia are posing a greater online threat to American national security interests.

ICANN’s executives and board of directors, who oversee the organization day to day, will now report to what the group calls the internet’s “stakeholder community” – a lightly defined mix of corporate interests, government officials, activists and experts spread across four international bodies.


The United States, for example, will have one seat on the 164-member Governmental Advisory Committee, theoretically equal in power to Barbados or Luxembourg.

The oversight exerted by the U.S. government “was more symbolic than practical,” said Christopher Mondini, an ICANN vice president. “The U.S. government and every administration since 1998 always intended for this contract to lapse.”

Supporters of ending the U.S. government’s role speak of the oversight potential of the “stakeholder community,” which while diffuse has gained more official powers in recent years in anticipation of its expanded authority over ICANN.

Advocates of this approach say that the many interests will work together to keep the internet stable and free. Most major technology and telecommunications companies have endorsed the transition. They say that fears of other nations taking control of the internet are overblown.

“There is absolutely no way that this is going to imperil freedoms. There is absolutely no way that this is going to allow Russia or Iran or anybody to take control of the internet. This has nothing to do with that,” said Matthew Shears, director of Global internet Policy for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based advocacy group largely supported by the tech industry.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.