ICANN, Russia, China, and Internet Reform: What You Need to Know

ICANN Board at a meeting in Cairo, Egypt in November 2008. Photo by ICANN / CC BY-SA 2.0


On September 30, 2016, the United States government responded to many years worth of mounting international pressure and relinquished the remnants of its control over the Internet governance mechanism ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). While a myriad of tech giants and international players applauded the decision, the move also provoked anger, fear, and condemnation back in the United States. US Senator Ted Cruz painted a bleak picture of Internet freedom and called on Americans to “imagine an Internet run like China or Russia that punish and incarcerate those who engage in political dissent.” US Representative John Shimkus argued that the US Government’s recent decisions on cyber governance give “the Vladimir Putins of the world a new venue to push their anti-freedom agendas.”

You may have a few questions about these recent events. Why are some politicians warning of Armageddon? What is ICANN and why is it so important? Why are Russia and China involved in any of this?

The State of Internet Governance: The Quick and Dirty Version

Unknown to most netizens, a small group of organizations determine Internet policy that governs online access for billions of people. This governance is almost exclusively concentrated in California-based organizations where prominent technologists and policymakers deliberate on decisions that support the smooth functioning of the Internet. The major components of this system include the following:

  • The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a non-profit organization that uses a multi-stakeholder model of governance to perform the maintenance necessary for managing IP addresses and domain names. These duties ensure that Internet users can successfully access websites using their respective names and addresses.
  • ICANN’s role is small but critical, causing the organization to wield outsized influence. For example, in 2012, the organization allowed the use of non-Latin characters in domain names. This simple decision facilitated the spread of Internet access to countless netizens who do not use the Latin alphabet.
  • Before September 30th, ICANN was under contract with the US Department of Commerce, a detail that has been a source of tension internationally.
  • ICANN advises the Internet Society (ISOC), an international non-profit that provides leadership for organizations promoting Internet education and access as well as developing standards and policy.

What do Russia and China have to do with this?

The international community has voiced concerns about Internet governance since the early 2000s with Russia and China having recently championed calls for reform. Since 2013, the two countries have increased bilateral cooperation on this issue and spearheaded multilateral initiatives in the context of the United Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance.

China and Russia have argued that US influence on Internet governance is dangerous for cybersecurity, un-democratic, and highly questionable considering recent revelations concerning American surveillance on other countries. Overall, Russia and China advocate two major positions. The first is the segmentation of the Internet into sovereign domains by enabling states to exercise more control over content and infrastructure. The second is the establishment of a multilateral model of Internet governance. This position focuses on transferring the duties of the ICANN to the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a system that aims to champion democratic values and empower states to implement their own country-specific rules.

Many countries including India and Brazil have welcomed Chinese-Russian efforts to discuss these issues. Critics in the US and abroad, however, argue that Russia and China are coopting the concepts of Internet freedom and sovereignty to support their own surveillance activities and suppression of free speech. Indeed, a multilateral approach to Internet governance and increased segmentation of cyberspace might facilitate censorship and surveillance in certain countries.

So What’s in Store for the Web?

Fear mongers in the U.S. may have you believe that American stewardship is the one shield against Russian and Chinese dominance over ICANN. In reality, ICANN’s recent independence is unlikely to produce serious changes in the near future. Currently, ICANN’s multi-stakeholder model is an embedded safeguard against any actor exerting too much influence. The organization relies on input from academics, engineers, policy wonks, and other experts in order to make decisions. As a result, even though the US had stewardship over the entity, the government’s influence was largely nominal. If Russia and China attempted to control ICANN’s decision process, pushing through personal agendas would be no easy task. For example, independent organizations such as the Internet Society have not exhibited any signs of Russian and Chinese influence.

If Russia and China spur the international community to place ICANN under the control of the ITU, however, real change could potentially occur. If the ITU gains control over ICANN and the Internet Society, these organizations will become more susceptible to outside influence. Russia or China could, for example, attempt to pressure ICANN to compromise access to certain sites although it is still important to note that they would still have to manage pushback from member countries when advocating their positions.

Finally, the motives behind Internet reform are not as clear as they may seem. Russia and China are famous for their censorship and surveillance efforts. As a result, critics assume these nations plan to reform the Internet in order to clamp down on their netizens even more. In reality, Russia’s motives are more complicated and less threatening for Internet freedom.

Commentators often lump China and Russia together when discussing topics such as online censorship. The countries’ online practices, however, are far from identical. Like China, Russian officials restrict and monitor their citizens’ online activities. That being said, Russia also understands the economic benefit of attracting users and companies to its corner of cyberspace- prompting the government to limit online surveillance and censorship and avoid overt forms of interference. These priorities mean that Russia lacks a serious interest in influencing organizations such as ICANN for the sake of imposing heavy-handed controls in cyberspace. For Russia, lobbying for changes to Internet governance is an easy way to counter US dominance, bolster Russian prestige, and strengthen its alliance to China. Seriously pursuing ambitious governance changes long-term is not necessary for the Russians. As a result, China may soon become lonely in its pursuit of Internet reform.

Marika Van Laan is a Research Analyst for an Arlington based cybersecurity education startup and a master’s student in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. Her interests include cybersecurity topics as well as the broader nexus between emerging technologies and global security.

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