Whether through taxes or net neutrality regulations, the Obama administration has seized every opportunity to expand federal control over the Internet. But at least until now, we’ve always been able to rely on Washington to defend the Internet as a global beacon of freedom and democracy.
Unfortunately, this seems to be changing, as the White House recently announced plans to transition from supervising the Internet’s architecture and may shift some of these responsibilities to countries like Russia and China, which would portend disaster for advocates of political dissent and Internet freedom.
Although the U.S. government doesn’t “control” the Internet in the literal sense of the term, it has had contractual oversight over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based nonprofit that manages the “back end” of the Internet by assigning domains (.com, .org, .edu and the like), IP addresses and other basic web protocols.
Although most casual Internet users aren’t aware of ICANN, it plays a critical role in keeping the Web running, and for over 10 years the U.S. government has held sole jurisdiction over it.
The U.S. government hasn't always been a paragon of Internet freedom, but throughout its tenure overseeing ICANN, the Web has grown in leaps and bounds into a global force for democracy, with little interference from Washington.
The same cannot be said of many other global powers – most notably Russia, which has a horrific record on free speech, and China, infamous for its Internet censorship.
So long as ICANN has remained under American supervision, governments hostile to free speech have not been able to halt the progress of the worldwide open Internet.
But this is about to change, as the White House has announced plans to give up its oversight of ICANN when its contract expires next year and transition to “globalized” Internet supervision.
Idyllic as it may sound for the Internet to be overseen by one harmonious global community, shared international oversight creates problems at every level and is more likely to spark diplomatic flare-ups and restrict Internet access than to achieve any kind of progress.
Under the present system, governments have the power to regulate what appears on the Internet within their borders, but without oversight of ICANN they have no control over what Internet users in other countries have access to.
Thus, the Chinese government can block its citizens from accessing Western media outlets, but it can’t prevent people outside China from reading online stories that are critical of Beijing.
But if China is given even partial control of ICANN, it could theoretically use its power as a diplomatic bargaining chip and attempt to bar the entire world from content it finds objectionable.
Moreover, transferring oversight of ICANN to the “global community” will almost certainly involve the participation of the United Nations, which has long clamored for increased authority over the Internet.
U.N. oversight of the Internet, like nearly every other U.N. diplomatic venture, is doomed to fail because it would rely upon nations with competing interests – and in many cases, hostile motives – to work as a team to secure the world’s most valuable resource.
This “team” would be stacked with regimes hostile to free speech, gay rights, women’s rights and religious freedom, including Russia, China, and the Middle East dictatorships that turned off Internet access during the Arab Spring.
The White House’s decision to turn ICANN over to potentially hostile interests is a continuation of its recent string of troubling Internet policies.
Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed many of the world’s autocrats by claiming that “this little thing called the Internet … makes it much harder to govern.” Kerry and the White House should be upholding the Internet as a democratizing force with the power to liberate oppressed people, not belittling it and providing cover for oppressors.
The world’s autocracies are unfit to share control of the Internet, and it would be both a diplomatic blunder and technological step backward for the United States to voluntarily invite these regimes to the table.
Although Washington hardly has a perfect record on free speech and Internet rights, it is miles better than the alternatives, and it should vigilantly defend its role as global protector of the free Internet instead of eagerly passing the buck.
The U.S. long ago seized the high ground on Internet supervision – to the benefit of Web users worldwide – and the White House needs to reconsider its decision to give that ground up.
Erik Telford is Senior Vice President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.