Keep the United Nations’s Hands Off the Internet

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Last week, the Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) signed a memorandum of understanding that would continue for at least three years our federal government’s oversight of Icann. Ironically, but not coincidentally, later this month the United Nations will convene for the first time the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), in Athens. That forum will look at a wide range of Internet governance issues that may not closely align with the views of either the American government or Icann.

Founded in 1998, Icann is a private company and the global coordinator for the system of international Internet identifiers including both domain names and addresses for Internet protocols.These are important responsibilities for the efficient and secure operation of the Internet.

Although it has federal government oversight, Icann is hardly an instrument of the federal government — no doubt to the consternation of many members of Congress and the administration. For that matter, it is hardly the choice of any government or the U.N. either.The U.N. is ultimately a body whose members are governments; Icann, for much the better, has no governmental members.

Although our federal government oversees Icann, it hardly controls it. Our government has, of course, attempted to influence Icann, but it refuses to be influenced. Icann suffers not from benign neglect but from benign independence.

Icann’s board consists of more than 20 directors, mostly technocrats from around the globe with relatively little representation from the United States. The individuals tend to be known among the Internet literati, but unknown among the politically or financially powerful in Washington, New York, Brussels, or Geneva.They are not the politically connected individuals who populate the directorships of most U.N. agencies.

There is much that is wrong with Icann. It is a private organization without shareholders and with a board that is ultimately responsible to no one but itself. Its board meets in secret and its procedures are unpredictable and opaque at best.Icann’s budget is increasing from $25 million to $34 million next year.The total sum is still minuscule on the scale of budgets of U.N. agencies, but Icann has and could operate on much less.Part of the budget goes to finance meetings in expensive venues around the world. The London School of Economics Public Policy Group recently released a detailed critique of Icann.

Yet for all of its shortcomings, Icann is a precious treasure compared with the next most likely outcome: the emergence of a U.N. agency to govern the Internet.Curiously, the same day the memorandum of understanding was signed with the Commerce Department, Icann issued a press release emphasizing that Icann could be more independent with fewer reporting requirements to the American government. The press release appears intended not for American review but for international consumption. For years, international resentment builds as the Internet has any vestigial connection to the American government, which merely designed and developed the Internet at great expense and then magnanimously gave it to the world gratis.

The very pretext for U.N. interest in the Internet governance and its initiation of the IGF is dissatisfaction with current Internet governance, or lack thereof, under Icann. KofiAnnan has established an advisory group for the IGF and has taken a visible role in the IGF. The IGF has 12 mandates, most of which are thinly veiled foundations for a U.N.role in Internet governance. One example is: “Strengthen and enhance the engagement of stakeholders in existing and/or future Internet governance mechanisms, particularly those from developing countries.” The approximate translation of this phrasing into standard English would mean the establishment of a new international Internet governance body.

America and every country around the world have much at risk if the Internet weregoverned by an incompetent or a politically motivated organization. While many in America would prefer that our government had retained more control over the Internet, many more individuals around the world would prefer to sever all remnants of a relationship between the Internet and America. Icann is far from a perfect administrator of the Internet, but it is far better than the alternative being conceived at the United Nations.

A former FCC commissioner, Mr. Furchtgott-Roth is president of Furchtgott-Roth Economic Enterprises. He can be reached at

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