Who should control the Internet? That was the question the Obama administration sought to answer last fall, when the U. The Internet began as a project of the U. The Republican response was apoplectic. John Bolton, a former U. Such criticism was not just hyperbolic; it was also fundamentally misplaced. The Obama administration did not give away the Internet; what it did was relinquish a vestige of U. And by reducing its oversight, the United States made a savvy decision that will protect the very features of the Internet nearly everyone cares about most: its openness, diversity, and fundamental resilience. In the view of many governments around the world, it was well past time not just for the United States to cede its role as steward of the address book but also, more broadly, for a multilateral group of states to assume greater control over the Internet. That is a dangerous aspiration, however, for it could undo the stability and openness that make the Internet so valuable—which is why the Obama administration sought to prevent it. Rather than weaken U. The first message was sent from the University of California, Los Angeles, to Stanford University in the fall of Five decades later, the Internet reaches around the globe and boasts some 3. Without allowing this ability, the Internet would be not a comprehensive, globe-encircling web but an unreliable series of Balkanized, and perhaps censored, mini-networks. In fact, the early Internet was so small that one man, the computer scientist Jon Postel, essentially ran the address book from his office in Los Angeles. But in the early s, the Internet began to change rapidly. Spurred by the creation of webpages, user-friendly browsers, and dial-up service providers, the Internet transformed into a mainstream commercial and social space. Domain names and websites skyrocketed in value; ownership disputes followed close behind. These disputes centered not only on the question of who had the right to use a given domain name but also, and most important, on who controlled the right to award one. Because the Internet evolved organically, with little thought that it would become a major economic and social resource, basic questions such as these were surprisingly hard to answer. Who, if anyone, really controlled the Internet? Other officials were skeptical. The modern Internet had many of the same technical features as the ARPANET, but in its scale, scope, and social utility, it bore almost no resemblance. The federal government had never previously asserted that its initial funding should give it legal ownership over the Internet. Moreover, it possessed no statutory authority over the awarding of domain names. No one disputed that the Internet had been launched in the United States with federal funding. By the late s, Internet use was growing explosively, and such uncertainty had become untenable. The administration of President Bill Clinton argued that the solution was simple: the Internet should be run by the private sector. Keen to control this novel communications system, they began to argue that it ought to be governed by them, or at least by the UN in a multilateral fashion. One UN agency, the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union, which manages the radio frequency spectrum and establishes standards for communications services, viewed the Internet as a natural part of its portfolio. It found one in the Internet. As a global resource, the ITU contended, the Internet ought to be governed globally, not by one country. The Clinton administration feared that if the Internet were governed by a multilateral body such as the ITU—one that states firmly controlled—its best features could be lost. It would become more vulnerable to censorship and control by governments with weak track records on freedom of expression and little tolerance for political dissent. And it might ultimately splinter into a series of regional or national networks rather than remain one global Internet. To try to thwart the increasing attempts to assert multilateral control, in , Clinton set in motion a new policy. Rather than increase federal control over the Internet, he sought to devolve authority to the private sector.

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