Governing the Internet by Kal Raustiala

Social Science Research Network logoAbstract: This essay explores why the United States is relinquishing an important source of power over the Internet, and what this means for both users of the Internet and scholars of global governance. The Internet began as a niche tool of engineers and academics, funded by the Department of Defense. Governance was loosely exercised by an insular group of enthusiasts and experts.

By the 1990s, as the Internet grew rapidly, control was asserted more directly by the US government. Significant power was delegated to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California non-profit. In June 2016, the Obama administration approved ICANN’s proposal for independent management of the critical “naming and numbering” function of the Internet. ICANN — governed by a complex multistakeholder structure that incorporates many non state actors — will directly control what is essentially the address book of the Internet.

By delegating more autonomy to ICANN, the US will strengthen multistakeholderism, not just for ICANN, but as a broader principle of global governance. The Internet has been, over the past two decades, a central site of struggle between multistakeholderism and multilateralism.

By relinquishing its role as primus inter pares among states, the US seemingly will lose an important source of power over the Internet. And yet even as its power is diminished, the achievement of its preferences will be strengthened. This somewhat paradoxical story has important lessons not only for the exercise of state power over the Internet but also for the evolution of global governance in a time when increasing numbers of nonstate actors across a range of international issues have achieved substantial participatory roles.

This paper by Kal Raustiala from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) – School of Law was originally published in the American Journal of International Law / UCLA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-33 and is available for download from: