Forty seven years after the first message was sent over the forerunner to today’s pervasive global network, the US has given up its remaining control over the internet.
The formal handover, which took effect on Saturday, followed a last-ditch attempt by a group of Republicans to block the move. They had argued that the US concession would open to the door for authoritarian governments get control of the network of networks, leading to greater censorship.
However, supporters of the handover plan maintained that it was the only way to prevent a greater threat to the internet, since foreign governments who resented the US control would end up walling off their own national networks, eventually Balkanising the global system.
On Friday, a judge in Texas refused to grant an injunction requested by four Republican state attorneys-general to bar the move. That followed the end of an attempted Congressional rebellion, led by senator Ted Cruz.
The last vestige of US control lay until this weekend in its power over the internet’s naming and addressing system. Though largely technical in nature, this theoretically gave Washington the power to make entire countries “go dark” on the internet by removing them from the central naming system — though such a drastic action was considered self-defeating since it would have led to the immediate fragmentation of the internet.
The US concession has officially launched an experiment in global governancedesigned to handle borderless digital communications. Control over addressing and naming on Saturday passed to ICANN, an international body that had already been handling the system under a contract from Washington, but now operates independently.
ICANN has frequently been criticised for an alleged lack of accountability and opaque decision making, making its enhanced role controversial. It has been reconstituted under a new so-called multi-stakeholder structure that tries to share control between a wide range of interests, including technical experts, academics, representatives of civil society and governments, without giving control to any of them.
In a statement welcoming the move, a group of big US companies, including Google, Disney and Verizon, cautioned that the new governance arrangement was still unproven.
“Although this is an important step in the transition process, there is still much work that needs to be done to ensure the accountability and transparency of ICANN,” the group, called the internet Government Coalition, said.
Today’s internet traces its roots to a network funded by the US defence department and designed to withstand disruption from war or other catastrophic events. Known as the Arpanet, it was switched on in October 1969, three months after the first human stepped on the moon, when a message was sent between two university research labs in California.
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