Two Fridays ago, in the hours typically reserved for the burying of news, the Commerce Department quietly dropped a bombshell. The United States, the agency’s terse missive confirmed, would be relinquishing its control of ICANN, the California non-profit that oversees the most basic functions of the Internet. “Convening stakeholders across the global Internet community,” assistant secretary Lawrence E. Strickling announced, ICANN would “craft an appropriate transition plan.”
At first, nobody reacted, the combination of technical jargon and the announcement’s timing serving to dull discussion. But in the past fortnight, a host of voices have started to question the move, typically returning to two simple but highly important inquiries. The first: “Why fix what is in no way broken?” The second: “What does America get from the deal?”
For once, this is not an issue of government versus the market. Nor is the debate here whether there will be oversight of ICANN at all. Instead, the material question is who will be doing the overseeing. The United States remains the best candidate. As critical of the Department of Commerce as we might in general be, it has in this instance proven itself to be a worthy steward and a principled champion of free speech.
It is troubling that the Obama administration has not seen fit to explain its decision, nor has it made a substantive case for beginning a process by which ICANN may be opened up to the influence of nations that do not boast traditions of individual liberty and protected expression. Instead, advocates have muttered a few words about “globalism,” “stakeholders,” and “transition,” and hoped that the questioners would slip away. This will not do.
During the past decade, both houses of Congress have repeatedly rebuked the United Nations’ ambitious International Telecommunications Union, a longtime stalking horse of those who long for greater influence and easier censorship. In 2012, despite the fractious atmosphere in Washington, D.C., bipartisan bills committing the United States to a protective role passed the House and the Senate without a single dissenting voice. Has the entire American political class had a change of heart?
Presuming that it has not, it should act — and swiftly. Lawmakers should explicitly force the Department of Commerce to retain its current role, over a presidential veto if need be. The executive branch was reportedly unsure as to whether it was able to make this decision without Congress. As is its wont, it went ahead and did it anyway. But there is no such doubt as to whether Congress may reverse its decision. This is a clear-cut Commerce Clause power, and one that should be exercised.
The timing for Republicans who would lead on this issue could not be better. This is a midterm year and a host of Democrats are fighting for their political lives. Opposing repeal of the administration’s decision could be potentially catastrophic — akin to opposing the Keystone pipeline or supporting cap-and-trade. Which embattled senator wants to go on record as voting against the United States’ retaining control of the web?
The Internet has been a runaway hit in large part because it combines the two ingredients necessary for success: the untrammeled energies and talents of a liberated civil society, and a light framework of governance that seeks not to inform behavior but to protect liberty. In providing content, the world can evidently look out for itself. On the question of protecting free expression, however, the United States remains an outlier even among other putatively free countries. “A lot of people,” former president Bill Clinton warned over the weekend, “have been trying to take this authority from the U.S. for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom.” Will America let them get away with it?