One of the marvels of the Internet is that it is self-governing, with private groups of engineers and technology companies doing their best to keep it up and running without political interference. Many countries around the world censor how their citizens access the Web, but governance of the Internet itself has been left to technologists and their largely libertarian instincts.
This happy state of affairs could be close to an end. There are now more Internet users in China than in any other country, and the fastest growing group of new users online is from non-English- speaking developing countries. This has led to a well-meaning plan to reorient the Web toward these users. But it could result in authoritarian governments insisting on more influence.
At issue is a key shift in the approach of Icann, the California-based nonprofit that maintains the directory of Internet addresses. Icann, which stands for Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, ultimately reports to the U.S. Commerce Department, though it has numerous advisory groups from other countries and from free-speech and other advocacy groups. It plans to open the door to many new Web addresses and to give better access to non-English-language users.