As we note the 25th anniversary of the birth of Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web, the integrity of the Internet is threatened as never before. China and Russia are launching cyberattacks at unprecedented levels, and the NSA's hacking and spying are destroying trust in technology.
In that context, the Obama administration has announced it will give up U.S. control of the Internet to an international governing body. This has been in the works for more than a decade — but the president needs to be certain that the transition to a nonprofit will maintain a free and open system. That is not at all clear today.
Silicon Valley can't keep driving the U.S. economy unless the guiding principles that shaped the Internet are the foundation of its next governing body.
If it were possible, we would urge Obama to hand control of the Internet back to “God.” But the bushy-bearded, sandal-clad tech genius who bore that nickname, the University of Southern California's Jon Postel, died in 1998 after serving as unofficial governor of the Internet for decades.
Valley legend Vint Cerf said this of Postel's legacy: “He was our rock. He was the foundation on which our every web search and email was built.”
Postel helped devise the protocols that underpinned the web and then served as the Internet's primary administrator. His philosophy, now known as Postel's law, was that any “implementation should be conservative in its sending behavior, and liberal in its receiving behavior.”
Postel died just as the current Internet administrator, the Los Angeles-based ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), was being formed. ICANN contracts with the Commerce Department to keep the system running.
Critics of releasing control now, including Republican Newt Gingrich, fear that foreign governments will swoop in and stifle its democratic principles. It's a legitimate fear, given that in 2012, the World Conference on International Telecommunications considered handing control of Internet operations to the United Nations, a frightening thought.
Commerce Department officials have issued guiding principles for the next governing body that emphasize the importance of a stable, open Internet. They maintain they will not turn over control to a government-led organization of any form. That's a relief.
An ICANN a stakeholder meeting beginning Sunday in Singapore is supposed to clarify the transition. The Obama administration should insist on an international nonprofit with established Internet principles to assume leadership.
Unfortunately, the United States has lost some of its moral authority in this choice because its own spying outrages have been exposed. It's one more reason the president needs to restore Internet integrity, starting with its own use of the system. And he should not hand anything over until we know who or what will be Postel's heir.