Obama Wants a Global Community to Run the Internet, but It Could End Up in the Hands of China. Or Putin

children at computers Peter Cook/View/Getty

Turns out, the Internet doesn't run itself.

Until mid-March, a branch of the U.S. government was responsible for such duties as assigning and managing domain names. Suffixes like ".com" or ".org," which outside of the U.S. also end in country identifiers like ".de" for Germany, are all organized by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is a contractor of an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

On March 14, however, Washington announced it would "transition" these duties away, let its contract with ICANN expire in 2015 and thus shed the last remnants of Internet control by America. U.S. governments have held some control over the Web ever since the launch in the late 1960s of a program that was developed in America by the military and academia to exchange information. That program became the Internet.

But who will take over once the U.S. cedes control? The short answer: No one knows.

Optimists envision a model 21st century body—from tech whiz kids to Google-size corporations, from human rights advocates to interested governmental bodies—all harmoniously managing together the important aspects of the most egalitarian tool of the age.

But they acknowledge that such a vision is yet to be fleshed out. A process to define a new approach to Internet governance was launched at a March conference in Singapore. Another gathering will be hosted in late April by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in São Paolo. There, organizers hope, global "stakeholders" will form a body capable of taking over the functions currently performed by the U.S. government. There will be other conferences, including one next September in Turkey, whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just tried to muzzle Twitter in his country.

Pessimists note that international conferences often end in disagreement and rancor. Just look at what has happened to international talks on environmental issues, where for decades governments and activists have failed to agree on meaningful measures to combat climate change. Instead of a meeting of the minds, the pessimists fear, powerful undemocratic governments will muscle in and stifle the freedoms now enjoyed by Web users.

In this dark vision, an unidentified United Nations bureaucrat will decide who can register an Internet domain name and who will be deemed too disruptive by authoritarian governments that already exercise too much power over the U.N. bureaucracy.

Some such criticism surfaced immediately after the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced that it had instructed ICANN, which it controls, to "transition" its functions away, starting a "final phase" of privatizing the Internet.

"I trust the innovators and entrepreneurs more than the bureaucrats—whether they're in D.C. or Brussels," said John Thune of South Dakota, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee.

But, he added, "there are people who want to see the Internet fall into the grip of the U.N." or another "unaccountable organization with the power to control the Internet, and we cannot allow them to determine how this process plays out."

Perhaps to answer concerns over a U.N. takeover, the NTIA's top spokesman, Lawrence Strickling, recently issued a statement that he hoped would clear up "misunderstandings" about the plan. Any transition, he stressed, must "protect the security, stability and resiliency of the Internet."

America "will not accept a proposal that replaces NTIA's role with a government-led or an intergovernmental solution," Strickling added, vowing that the transition plan would be halted, and his department "will continue to perform our current stewardship role," as long its concerns are not met—and if a body like the U.N. tries to take over the administration of the Net.

U.N. officials do not, however, exclude an "intergovernmental" body's future involvement. As one U.N. official familiar with the U.N.'s thinking on the matter said when I asked if the U.N. expects to take over America's duties, "We cannot foresee how the transition will unfold."

Immediately after Washington made the announcement, U.N .Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rushed to "welcome" the move. So did Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a U.N. body that some powerful U.N. members hope will have a central role in the future.

The ITU is controlled, as is the U.N.'s modus operandi, by a 48-member council that includes representatives from Cuba, Egypt and China, and other countries where Web access is strictly controlled by the government. As a young man, the Malian-born Touré, who has headed the ITU since 2010, honed his computer engineering skills at universities in Leningrad and Moscow, in what was then the communist Soviet Union.

No wonder that amid the hesitant welcome in Washington for the NTIA's decision—which, surprisingly, included not only Democrats and several Web giants but also government-weary conservatives who often criticize the administration—there were also warnings.

In fact, the March announcement dates back to a decision made by the George W. Bush administration back in 2005. The U.S. participated then in a conference in Tunisia organized by the U.N., ostensibly to bridge the gap between Internet haves and have-nots. In that conference, America joined a consensus in agreeing that ICANN's duties should eventually be transferred from U.S. hands to a "global body" with full authority to manage domain names and other duties of Internet governance.

More recently, in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's theft of National Security Agency documents, Washington found itself under growing pressure from world leaders and Internet-centered corporations—all expressing profound concern over Web snooping and the infringement of privacy.

Brazil's Rousseff, the host of April's São Paolo conference, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were at the forefront of the sharp criticism of snooping by U.S. agencies. Pressure to cede controls over the Internet was raised at that time.

The European Commission, which has advocated less U.S.-centric Internet governance since 2009, has volunteered to become an "honest broker" in São Paolo and in the future as a new Internet management model emerges. "Europe must play a strong role in defining what the Net of the future looks like," said the commission's vice president, Neelie Kroes.

Like the U.S., Kroes said, she is opposed to any "top-down" model, such as transferring control into the hands of the U.N. or the ITU. Nevertheless, echoing concerns about America's secret snooping program, Kroes' deputy chief of staff, Pearse O'Donohue, told me that "complacency over the current model," in which the U.S. government controls domain names, is no good either. Neither a "model of greater control" nor "a lack of governance" would work, O'Donohue warned.

But in America, some are concerned that by ceding control, the U.S. guarantees that the process will end in Internet anarchy—or control by the wrong forces.

"What is the global Internet community that Obama wants to turn the Internet over to?" tweeted former House speaker Newt Gingrich. "This risks foreign dictatorships defining the Internet."

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni