When domestic and international organizations with key stakes in governing the Internet meet in Singapore starting Sunday, they'll face a major task that begins with the question: What's next?
At issue: Establishing a new global Internet steering committee after the U.S. Commerce Department announced it will no longer supervise the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the outfit that doles out Internet domain names and dot-com addresses.
With the U.S. government effectively giving up oversight of the Internet—now one of the chief mediums of global commerce and communications—should anyone in the U.S., or anywhere else, be concerned?
Most experts and observers don't think so, but to make that determination it helps to know what ICANN is, and how it came to be.
The nonprofit ICANN, composed of governments, telecom corporations and technical experts, has overseen the Internet since 1998, performing the kind of arcane work that's central to the World Wide Web's successful functioning.
Since the U.S. Defense Department played such a key role in developing the Internet in the 1960s, most Internet housekeeping chores and issues tied to technical integrity—including overseeing ICANN—have fallen to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
That organization hasn't ruled with a heavy hand. But from time to time, some international organizations and nations have suggested that the U.S. has abused its power to control the Internet in one way or another.
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Those vague suspicions came to the fore in the last year following Edward Snowden's revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency spies on foreign governments. In line with that, U.S. government observers argue that the Commerce Department's move to relinquish oversight ties to ICANN is as much a diplomatic step as it is a decision tied to broadening the organization's worldwide base.
Fadi Chehade, ICANN's CEO/president, argues that the Commerce Department decision is "historic, because it marks a point of maturity in ICANN, the ICANN community and the global Internet community." He notes that "all stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and governance of this global resource as equal partners."
Retiring Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., agreed. "The U.S. has been committed to transitioning management of the Internet's domain name system to an independent entity that reflects the broad diversity of the global Internet community," he said. Several major Internet technical organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium and the Internet Engineering Task Force said they agreed.
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The government's decision isn't expected to have any immediate impact on U.S. businesses or other Internet users, including private citizens, when it comes to governance issues, handling Internet domain names and related matters. Indeed, the response from the U.S. business community has been quite positive. Verizon, Yahoo and AT&T are praising the U.S. government move, which Microsoft termed a "significant and welcome development."
Added Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge, a group that promotes open access to the Internet: "This is a step in the right direction to resolve important international disputes about how the Internet is governed."
But some critics, such as former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, aren't happy about the Commerce Department's pronouncement, arguing that it may give other governments—say Russia and China—too much say in potentially tightening controls on the Internet. "Every American should worry about [President] Obama giving up control of the Internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous," Gingrich said.
Overall, though, the U.S. decision won international approval. Among others, Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's communications minister, called the Commerce Department's move "a momentous day in the history of the Internet."
The next step is for international governments, Internet-governance bodies, the United Nations and Internet technical organizations to put together a board to manage ICANN. If progress isn't made by September 2015—when the Commerce Department plans to step away from ICANN—it will re-assume its current role.
The first push toward reorganization will come during ICANN's four-day annual meeting in Singapore. Right now, there are no proposals on the table. But Lawrence E. Strickling, the NTIA's administrator, said any new governance model has to "maintain the security, stability and resiliency of the Internet Domain Name System. ... We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan."
Added Chehade: "Nothing will be done to jeopardize the security and stability of the Internet."
—By Bob Diddlebock, special to CNBC.com.