April 14 2014

U.S. Internet Oversight: Stand Up for Freedom of Speech

Charlotte Hays

An Obama administration plan to surrender U.S. control of basic functions of the internet to an international entity may sound like an arcane plan of little interest to average citizens.

Nothing is further from the truth. Although the administration is backing off the plan for the time being, the prospect of the U.S.'s ceding control of the internet is something about which all Americans should be alarmed. Such an unnecessary action has the potential to chill free speech, curtail political dissent, and limit the free flow of information around the globe.

A not-for-profit agency called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—ICANN—loosely administers internet functions and operates under the aegis of the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.  ICANN allocate domain names and the associated numerical addresses.

ICANN has a wealth of information that could be useful to a repressive government. In the hands of government censors in, say, China or Russia, the information could be used to dampen and penalize political opposition.

Opponents of the Obama administration plan include former President Bill Clinton, who voiced his concerns publicly at an event put on by his Clinton Global Initiative.

“A lot of people … have been trying to take this authority from the U.S. for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom and limiting it and having governments protect their backsides instead of empowering their people,” Clinton said.

The decision about control of the internet has been put off four years, and so it will fall into the lap of the next president. In a piece on the op-ed page this morning, the Wall Street Journal calls the delay “stepping back from the abyss.”

The piece then goes on to give reasons why this matters so much:

The Obama administration proposal would have treated other governments as equal stakeholders, turning the concept of private-sector self-governance on its head. Robert McDowell, a former commissioner at the Federal Communication Commission, pointed out at the Hudson Institute event that "'multi-stakeholder' historically has meant no government," not many governments.

[Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence]  Strickling tried to deflect criticism in his testimony: "No one has yet to explain to me the mechanism by which any of these individual governments could somehow seize control of the Internet as a whole." The senior State Department official involved in Internet governance, Daniel Sepulveda, similarly claimed at the Hudson Institute: "Governments can no more take over Icann than Google GOOGL -1.63% can take over Icann."

These are false assurances. Steve DelBianco of the NetChoice trade association gave this example in congressional testimony: Under Icann rules, a majority of governments can simply vote to end the current consensus approach and switch to majority voting. China and Iran are already lobbying for this change. Russia, China and other governments switched to majority voting to outfox the U.S. at a conference of the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency, in 2012. Mr. Sepulveda called that an "anomaly," but the result was an 89-55 vote for a treaty giving U.N. legitimacy to governments cutting off the open Internet in their countries. This division of the Internet into open and closed networks goes into effect next year.

The Obama administration somehow thinks sacrificing U.S. control of Icann will satisfy regimes eager further to undermine the open Internet. Mr. Strickling argues: "Taking this action is the best measure to prevent authoritarian regimes from expanding their restrictive policies beyond their borders." The opposite is true. Granting these countries access to Icann and the root zone filenames and addresses on the Internet would give them the potential to close off the global Internet, including for Americans, by deciding rules for how all websites anywhere must operate.

A letter sent by Republican senators criticizes the plan and ask how control, once surrendered, can be regained. Likely, it can’t.

“We should be very mindful of creating a global organization with little accountability that can effectively tax the Internet,” Daniel Castro, senior analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, is quoted saying in Market Watch. 

The bottom line is that this is not something the United States has to do and there is no reason for it beyond some fuzzy feelings about the moral role of international institutions.

Former senator Mary Bono sees danger in the plan. “It could be the beginning of censorship,” she said was quoted saying in Politico. “Anyone frustrated with the UN Security Council could take a look at this and recognize potential problems.”

 

 

 

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