Thomas Donlan‘s latest editorial commentary for Barron’s examines the potential impact of impending changes in Internet governance.

Internet governance? It seems as much an oxymoron (from the ancient Greek words for sharp and dull) as “benevolent despot” and “leading from behind.” The Internet has been anarchic for decades, but its underlying strength is that it follows rules that keep it free.

Whom should you trust to guard the Internet? More importantly, whom do the relevant U.S. government officials trust? And in the end, who will watch the guardians, whoever they may be?

The Commerce Department is getting ready to turn over supervision of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to…well, it’s not clear who or what will pick up the pieces left after U.S. stewardship of the Internet is dropped on the concrete floor of world politics.

Icann has been the Internet’s manager since 1998, when it was created to replace the Internet’s original benevolent despot, Jon Postel. Vinton G. Cerf, another father of the Internet, wrote in Postel’s obituary in 1998:

“Someone had to keep track of all the protocols, the identifiers, networks and addresses, and ultimately the names of all the things in the networked universe.”

Internet users were fortunate that Postel knew that names have power, and still more fortunate that he used his power firmly and wisely. He even gave the advice known as Postel’s Law, which should be better remembered and more widely applied: “An implementation should be conservative in its sending behavior, and liberal in its receiving behavior.”

In conversational terms, the meaning is simple: Listen with open ears, but talk only after thinking carefully. In technical terms for network management, he meant items transmitted by computer should adhere scrupulously to protocol, while items received should not be rejected because of mistakes.

Postel’s Law aided the development of computer systems and devices that could communicate without using exactly the same design. Without following the principle, there might never have been a single international computing and communicating network. The world might be divided into national networks, corporate networks, professional networks, and more, each with its own rules.