Who should control the Internet? That was the question the Obama administration sought to answer last fall, when the U.S. Department of Commerce ended its long-standing contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN is the nonprofit that performs the small but significant function of governing the Internet’s system of website and domain names—managing its address book, so to speak. The Internet began as a project of the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1960s, and since its creation in the late 1990s, ICANN had remained under U.S. supervision. By bringing the contract to a close, President Barack Obama freed ICANN to act autonomously.
The Republican response was apoplectic. “Like Jimmy Carter gave away the Panama Canal, Obama is giving away the Internet,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said. John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the UN, characterized it as “a mistake of such colossal proportions that you would have thought we’d have a huge debate about it in this country.” Stephen Miller, a campaign aide to Donald Trump, lamented, “Internet freedom will be lost for good, since there will be no way to make it great again once it is lost.”
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.S. control over a domain that had long since expanded beyond the mastery of any one entity. 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.
What Obama’s critics miss is that as the Internet grew into a truly global resource, so did pushback against the United States’ relationship with ICANN. In the view of many governments around the world, it was well past time not just for the United States to cede its