ICANNT even: Why the US government giving up control of the Internet is a catastrophic idea

AP Photo

AP Photo

While you were opening your first beer after a long week’s work last Friday, the administration made an announcement that may forever change the Internet:

It declared plans to give up control of the Internet.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced it will no longer oversee ICANN, the nonprofit formed by the U.S. government that, along with the Commerce Department, has managed distribution of domain names for the entire Internet since 1998. The announcement, when considering timing, surrounding circumstances, and foreign policy implications, reeks of sheepishness, irresponsibility, and naiveté.

“The bureaucracy buries news of which it is not proud with a release late in the day on a Friday afternoon,” accurately wrote Paul Rosenzweig in The New Republic.

America plans to allow its contract with ICANN to expire in 2015. While there is a consensus that there won’t be many noticeable short-term consequences, people are wary of long-term ones. The decision may put control of the Internet in untrustworthy hands, where it will no longer be protected by the First Amendment. And there is always the possibility that the U.S. government may backtrack if there are indications another government has the potential to take its place.

“Larry Strickling, head of the Commerce Department agency that oversees ICANN, said a main objective for the U.S. is to make sure that NTIA isn’t replaced by the U.N. or another governmental organization,” Gautham Nagesh, tech reporter at The Wall Street Journal, wrote. While this isn’t likely to happen in the short-term, it is naïve to think this couldn’t change a few years down the line — especially considering that certain countries which have pressured us are salivating at the prospect of further restricting their citizens’ speech.

In recent years, a collection of nations, led by China and Russia, have been pushing for control to be transferred to the United Nations. ICANN currently has an “international governance structure of what it calls ‘stakeholders,’ a group that includes governments, corporations, and civil society activists,” writes Brendan Greeley in Businessweek. But, China and Russia say “the only stakeholders that matter” are countries. That doesn’t sound too promising for internet freedom.

Greeley explains that, currently, China can “prevent users inside its borders from viewing a website that promotes Tibetan separatism, but can’t prevent that website from registering a domain name. It would very much like to, under the argument that the site threatens China’s domestic sovereignty.” The U.S. government’s decision means the Internet will no longer be governed by the Constitution, and accordingly, the First Amendment. Accordingly, China may get its wish.

“To turn internet governance over to a global body where their combined influence is stronger than America’s will likely change the nature of the Internet and reduce its value as a tool through which people gain political liberty and education,” writes Peter Roff in Politix. He points out the absurdity of the prospect that Russia, which by invading Crimea violated a 1994 agreement with the U.S. and U.K, would “feel bound in times of crisis to respect any agreements it made regarding Internet governance.”

This also shows further weakness in the Obama Administration’s foreign policy strategy. Initially, falling in line with hostile countries’ wishes is clearly one in a long line of this administration’s submissive and irresponsible foreign policy decisions.

But more importantly, part of the rationale behind this move is to act in a show of good faith to other countries after the NSA scandal. As America was found to have been spying on officials in foreign governments, this would help repair relations. This is not the way to accomplish that.

“Atoning for that by giving up our remaining control of the internet is … too high a price to pay to win the illusive forgiveness of the rest of the world,” says Roff.

Government would be wise to renege and not cave to pressure from our enemies. Weak foreign policy isn’t working for us, nor the global community, as Russia’s invasion of Crimea proves. If we want to show we learned from the NSA scandal, reforming the NSA — not harming internet freedom — would be a good place to start.

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