Handing Over the Keys to the Internet
It’s nuts to cede control of the Internet to countries with poor records on free speech.



The question at hand, therefore, is less whether there should be any oversight of the Internet’s basics, and more who is best placed to perform this role. “Without the U.S. government providing an effective backstop to ICANN’s original operating principles, there would be no mechanism in place to stop foreign governments from interfering with ICANN’s operations,” the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Daniel Castro wrote on Friday. He’s right. Across two decades, multiple administrations, and a host of dramatic changes, the American state has proven itself a worthy overseer of the work of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). We might worry about who is reading our e-mails, but we don’t fret about the Internet’s being restricted at its core. We may be concerned about the lack of free communication in other countries, but we don’t have to sweat about those countries’ governments shutting off our access here. And yet, having grown cocky in its maturity, the U.S. government is now considering inviting those countries’ censors to the table and giving them a vote on how to fix a problem that never was. Why?

Deny it as the administration might, foreign pressure has undoubtedly taken its toll. As Reuters reported this week, demands from foreign governments “accelerated following disclosures from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, whose documents showed that U.S. intelligence officials scanned vast amounts of Internet traffic.” In truth, this says a great deal more about those nations’ genius for timing, diplomacy, and theatrics than it does about the matter at hand. American control of the Internet’s essential registration functions has nothing whatsoever to do with the federal government’s capacity to spy inside or outside the United States; nor does its decision to relinquish control affect the NSA’s programs one iota. The government did not announce on Friday that it was shuttering the NSA or curtailing a single surveillance initiative. The link between the two is moot.

Elsewhere, critics of American control have recruited to their cause such potent terms as “sovereignty,” “fairness,” and “democracy,” while contending anemically that because the whole world enjoys the benefits of the Internet, the whole world should have input into how it is run. I struggle to comprehend this argument. It seems clear that the only reason nations might require democratic input would be that they wished to undermine, rather than bolster, the status quo, and precisely what is in that for us is never explained. Indeed, beyond the usual flowery, meaningless, one-world pablum that infects so many smart human beings when they discuss anything “global,” nobody has yet managed to adumbrate what specifically is wrong with how the United States has managed the system thus far; nor has anyone outlined what practical benefits we might derive from the shift. Instead, naysayers have been told that this “was always the plan” — as if that serves as a case for anything.

Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, announced in a perfunctory and soulless statement last week that his department was looking “forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.” He may regret his nonchalant delivery of these words. The Commerce Department has been keen to establish that it will not allow the new governing body to consist solely of governments, and also that it will not permit control to rest in the hands of one source. It has not, however, promised that it will bar governments with poor records on free speech and individual liberty from being a part of the team; nor has it explained how, ten years down the line, it is going to ensure that the outfit doesn’t descend into the mire. There is a good reason that both the United States Congress and the European Union passed resolutions against the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union, which has coveted control of the Internet for a decade now — and that is that the body is cancerous and the countries that are urging it on (Russia and China, largely) are treacherous.

“The United Nations has been angling quietly to become the epicenter of Internet governance,” warned Mary Bono Mack, a Republican from California, after the unanimous House vote. “We cannot let this happen,” she vowed gravely. Just a year later, we are. Yesterday, the United States found itself in an advantageous and virtuous position: the benign steward of an astonishing network that it developed, refined, and then gave to the world without caveat. Today, provoked and shamed into action by actors who have neither the moral nor legal claim to its work, it is on the cusp of giving up control. An unforced error. For shame.

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