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It’s nuts to give control of Internet to countries with poor records on free speech

Editor's note: The following op-ed originally appeared on the website of the National Review, National Review.com.

If at least for the sake of variation, those charged with riffling through last Friday’s news dumps must have been relieved to find neither new ObamaCare delays nor abandoned red lines hiding among the detritus. And yet, while the less technically proficient could have been forgiven for having missed it, an announcement just as vexing was waiting in lieu: that America was planning to give up control of the Internet. At this point in the proceedings, one is customarily chastised by pedants who note impatiently that the United States does not really “control” much of the Internet at all — at least not literally.

The Internet, our dogmatists record, is a wildly decentralized network of computers, servers, and services that are run by non-governmental agencies, individual citizens, and private businesses, and fleshed out by the enthusiasm and the creativity of civil society. 

As it stands, a tyrant is able to restrict access to certain parts of the Internet in his own country, but he is unable to make a page or a server or a service disappear completely.

They are right, of course. In its structure, the Web is a libertarian’s dream — an explosion of spontaneous order and of mutual cooperation that would have made Hayek blush. It don’t need no stinkin’ Man.

And yet, as with all good things, it does have some framework — a slim skeleton on which the meat and the gristle might be laid. As Forbes’s Emma Woollacott confirmed on Saturday, should the U.S. government go through with its plan,

the responsibilities to be farmed out will include the administration of changes to the DNS’s authoritative root zone file — the database containing the lists of names and addresses of all top-level domains — as well as managing the unique identifiers registries for domain names, IP addresses, and protocol parameters.

For the uninitiated, this is tech-speak for “the basics.” The “DNS’s authoritative root zone file” is effectively a master directory of website addresses, kept in one place to avoid duplication and to guarantee that when everybody types “nationalreview.com” into their browser, they get the same page; “IP addresses,” to put it oversimply, are the Internet’s “phone numbers,” assigned to each computer (or router) so that they can be contacted by others; “protocol parameters” inform the basic architecture by which the Internet operates — variables such as which characters may be used, and in what form commonly used services such as email and Web pages are to operate. You get the idea.

As you might imagine, it matters a great deal who is in charge of this compendium, for whoever controls it can use the thing essentially as a global on/off switch. As it stands, a tyrant is able to restrict access to certain parts of the Internet in his own country, but he is unable to make a page or a server or a service disappear completely. To wit, if I write something nice about Taiwan on NRO, the Chinese government can restrict access to that page in any territory that it controls — in the name of “national security” or what you will. But it can’t delete NRO entirely; nor can it restrict access to our servers from outside its jurisdiction.

To continue reading Charles C. W. Cooke's column in the National Review, click here.

Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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