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Pay attention to the nerds in Singapore

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A group of nerds and wonks is having some hideously boring meetings this week in Singapore. You should care: What they produce could change the nature of the Internet.

On March 14, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration said it would relinquish oversight of ICANN, the nonprofit group that has managed the name-and-address system of the Internet since 1998. To simplify a bit, ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — is what ensures that you magically get connected to the site you want when you type in a Web address.

The NTIA has done an exemplary job protecting the Internet’s openness and stability with a hands-off and nonpolitical approach to overseeing ICANN. Now it plans to hand that oversight to an international conglomerate of "stakeholders," a Web term that roughly translates as, "a bunch of people that we can’t name yet but who know and care about this kind of thing." In Singapore, ICANN’s members are discussing what that group should look like.

The United States has always said that it intended internationalize ICANN’s oversight. But for the transfer to be a (forgive the pun) net positive — and not dangerously counterproductive — it matters how it is done.

At this point, no one has any idea what ICANN’s new governance structure will look like. The NTIA, although exerting almost no day-to-day control over ICANN, nonetheless provided crucial accountability. ICANN had to live up to a set of standards requiring things like a transparent budgeting process, ample security procedures and a commitment to work in the public interest. If it failed to, the NTIA could always have canceled its contract. ICANN’s new overseers need to make sure this kind of accountability continues.

A bigger worry is that ICANN could become susceptible to political influence from autocratic or censorious regimes. Right now, a concerned Ukrainian is free to register, say, VenalVladimir.com, and use it to denounce Putin. Russia could easily block the site within its borders, but it couldn’t prevent people elsewhere from seeing it. If ICANN no longer had the explicit backing of the U.S. government, however, Russia might have more luck stopping the site from ever coming into being in the first place.

So before the NTIA’s contract with ICANN ends next year, it should require a few things that could help smooth the transition. And the U.S. government shouldn’t hesitate to delay or even cancel the transfer if these conditions aren’t met.

First, ICANN must affirm that its finances will remain an open book, subject to public audit each year. It should commit to maintaining a legal presence in any country in which it has contracts. Its technical functions should be strictly separated from its more politicized policy-making functions.

Most important, ICANN must explain how it intends to remain free of harmful political influence and keep its leadership accountable. The U.S. government has already said that it "will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution." It might also require that ICANN’s board include seats for advocates of free expression and private companies.

One of the great benefits of U.S. oversight of ICANN is that it just works — and has for almost two decades. That’s the central point the Web’s stakeholders should keep in mind as they exchange ideas and acronyms this week in Singapore.

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