Since its inception the Internet has transformed the world and flourished with minimal government intervention, and it has made education easier and more accessible, opened businesses to tens of millions of new customers, and revolutionized the spread of news and information.
It has given a new voice to the yearning desire for freedom all over the world and provided the infrastructure necessary to give rise to powerful pro-democratic revolutions and economic prosperity.
For these reasons and so many more, the Internet has become one of humanity’s greatest treasures. It must now be protected as such.
For, while the Internet has given much to people all over the world, it has also posed a great threat to those governments that seek to subjugate and control their people. Many of these governments – 42 to be exact – have already taken action to limit or restrict their people’s access to the Internet. Many of them have demonstrated a desire to take this a step further by exercising control over the way the Internet is governed internationally.
The United States must vocally and vehemently oppose any attempt to allow the Internet to fall under the control of foreign governments or international organizations like the United Nations.
The administration and Congress must lead the cause of defending Internet freedom because international actions are being taken to uproot the current model of Internet governance. That is why the Obama administration’s recent announcement must be carefully considered and understood.
On March 14 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced that it would not renew its contract with the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN) to administer the Internet’s domain name system.
This transition has been in the making for years and in principle is intended to keep nations like China and Russia from exerting influence and control over the Internet.
There is considerable uncertainty about why this decision was made and how this process will unfold. Given the Obama administration’s record, there is justifiable skepticism about whether or not this it is competent enough to manage this transition.
We have seen this administration make commitments and draw “red lines” in the sand, only to learn later that those lines are negotiable.
We have seen this administration establish deadlines, only to learn later that those deadlines are not firm.
The commitment to a multi-stakeholder model that is free from the interference of institutions like the United Nations and countries that do not share our desire for a free and open Internet is a positive one. But this is also a complex process that requires vigilance and rigorous oversight because in this situation there can be no compromise or weakness.
An Internet overseen by governments will mean an end to the current Internet that has transformed the world and advanced freedom and prosperity.
There is no question that Internet freedom has many opponents, including countries that advocate for greater international control over the Internet and use the Internet to suppress the individual liberties of their own citizens. These countries do not care for the multi-stakeholder model of governance or our commitment to it.
That is why, in 2012, Congress unanimously expressed support for the bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model that currently governs the Internet and for an Internet free from government control.
I sponsored this resolution along with a bipartisan group of senators. There was no debate or question about the passage of this resolution or the policies in it.
The United States Congress took a strong stand for Internet freedom. Now the administration must do the same. Any action the Administration takes in carrying out this announcement, any proposal it considers from the global community, and any decision it makes to transition the domain functions must abide by this resolution.
Furthermore, Congress must conduct rigorous oversight of this decision and process. The House has already announced a hearing, and the Senate Commerce Committee should do the same.
Beyond hearings, Congress must demand answers and more information from NTIA. The vagueness of NTIA’s announcement and process must be replaced by certainty and a clear vision of the path forward. Not because Congress wants answers, but because the American people deserve an explanation of why this decision was made, why it was made now, and why this decision is in the best interests of the United States and the Internet.
To ensure this occurs, NTIA must be open and transparent about its intentions, deliberations, and decisions.
The agency must maintain constant contact with Congress and with the global community.
Conducting this process behind closed doors or limiting debate only to international conferences would be a disservice and only lead to further distrust and opposition.
Above all, the NTIA must be an active participant. Just because NTIA is relinquishing this contract does not mean the United States should sit on the sidelines. The Internet and its future are too important. A lot is riding on this decision, and the United States cannot be idle or take the posture of a passive observer.
We know the world is watching how NTIA carries out this announcement and transition.
We know that enemies of Internet freedom are watching for the first opportunity to seize this process and push for more government control of the Internet.
They can be certain that Congress and the American people are watching as well.
There is too much at stake to get this wrong, and too much is still unknown to have complete confidence that this will be done correctly.