Late one Friday afternoon, the Obama Administration announced its plans to cut the Internet loose from U.S. government oversight, giving control to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private corporation created by the U.S. to manage the web. Since then both ICANN and the administration have gone to great pains to explain that the change would have little practical effect, be largely benign, and that the current U.S. role would not be taken over by other governments like China, Russia, Iran, or the European Union. Sadly, however, these assurances are the Internet equivalent of “If you like the health insurance plan you have now, you can keep it. Period.”
Most Americans know the Internet won’t improve if dictators from around the world are given a bigger role in its governance. Many countries — even those not run by dictators — have engaged in censorship, silenced dissent, and selectively shut the Internet down for authoritarian political reasons.
ICANN was established to administer and govern the Internet’s naming protocols and its behind-the-scenes functioning, pursuant to a valuable contract with the U.S. government that must be renewed every few years for a very simple reason: If ICANN acts irresponsibly, it loses the lucrative contract which allows it to collect annual fees for registration of web addresses. This single check and balance, if eliminated, means that ICANN will be able to do whatever it wants – and, in time, whatever it is told to do by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, or China’s Xi Jinping.
ICANN has recently proposed allowing its Government Advisory Committee (GAC)— a committee comprised of government representatives from around the world — to acquire new powers that would effectively control everything it does. Under the proposal, “recommendations” from this GAC will be binding on ICANN unless a super-majority of the board vetoes it.
The super-majority needed for a veto means the GAC is not an advisory body; it will be given virtual control. This is far different from what the Obama Administration and ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade have repeatedly promised.
Once you cut through the mumbo-jumbo, ICANN is recommending that governments like Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, and others not only have a voice in governing the Internet, but have the power to control it entirely. This is self-evidently an horrific idea. And worse, Russia and China are recommending that the GAC abandon its consensus model for majority rule, making it even easier for authoritarian regimes to exercise broad control over the Internet.
Anyone who reads news online, blogs, or uses Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram should be on notice that under the ICANN proposal, if authoritarian leaders like Putin, Kim, Rouhani, or Xi find something offensive in your tweets, posts, or photos, or in the news you read, you will lose access or worse. They all censor the Internet, banning content they consider offensive in their own countries.
In America, we get to decide what we read, not the government. But that isn't how most of the world works. Even in most western democracies, government plays a significant role in determining what can be published. Almost no other nation recognizes freedom of speech and press like we do. Are you ready to kiss this freedom goodbye?
From a national security perspective, it would be profoundly harmful for America to turn the Internet over to international control. State sponsors of terrorism would gain another powerful tool with which to attack the rest of
the world. Additionally, in a world in which China and many other nations steal technology and intellectual property, giving away the Internet to be governed by those who would steal even more, makes no economic sense for Americans.
America invented, developed, and built the Internet. We share it with the rest of the world. There simply is no good reason to give it away. The Internet must remain an American institution — governed by the Constitution’s protection of Free Speech and with the modest check and balance of answering periodically to the American public. Turning the Internet over to an international body that will likely be dominated by autocrats who use government power to silence and subjugate those with whom they disagree, and who promote instability and violence around the globe, and who steal the innovation and technology that Americans create, is the very definition of stupid.
If the Obama Administration is serious about its stated policy of “not doing stupid stuff,” then it must immediately reverse course and keep the Internet governed by, and accountable to, America.