‘Someone taught me not to judge the intentions of someone else’s heart,” Senator Tim Scott tells me when I ask him why the Obama administration has been so quiet about its decision to relinquish oversight of the Internet. “But,” he adds reluctantly, “it seems that the tradition has been that what you want to go unnoticed, you put out on the last day of the week.”
Indeed so. Friday afternoons being to transparency what Charlie Sheen is to chastity, the announcement’s coming when it did inspired a certain raising of eyebrows. Thus far, however, the backlash has been relatively muted. A few conservatives have grumbled at the edges; the Wall Street Journal has published a couple of critical takes; Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, has expressed a fear that advocates’ talk of local governance is code for censorship; and former president Bill Clinton has warned that the plan’s foreign proponents largely wish to “take this authority from the U.S. for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom.” Congress, meanwhile, has been uncharacteristically silent — a shadow of the body that just two years ago unanimously passed a bill declaring that the United States would not allow the web to fall into the hands of those who would do it harm.
To this collective reticence, Senator Scott has served as a welcome exception. “There are questions that I’ll be asking,” he tells me over the phone. Questions such as, “To whom is oversight going?”; “what is the definition of ‘multistakeholder’?”; “how do we intend to maintain the same level of freedom and liberty that we have enjoyed?”; and “who is ultimately going to be in charge?” I push a little harder, for clarification: Are there circumstances under which Scott would endorse the Department of Commerce’s letting go? Or is he, like me, in favor of the United States’ retaining its role? “I think we need a pause
,” he responds. “The timing is bad.”
Still, one has to start somewhere, and Scott predicts that “interest on the Senate side will keep growing.” “My thought and hope,” he adds, “is that the commerce committee will continue to look at this.” Time will tell, but he is no longer alone in the fight. On Friday morning, Senator Marco Rubio joined the fray — finally speaking up on an issue that has consistently concerned him since he arrived in Congress in 2010. Rubio is refreshingly firm in his insistence that “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.” Nevertheless, like Scott, he is not entirely opposed to the United States giving up its unilateral control. “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,” Rubio writes today. “But this is also a complex process that requires vigilance and rigorous oversight because in this situation there can be no compromise or weakness.”
This juxtaposition perplexes and irritates me. The only practical way in which the United States can guarantee that there is no danger from “institutions like the United Nations and countries that do not share our desire for a free and open Internet” is to politely but firmly make clear that, the system not being broken, there is no incentive for anyone else to be invited to the table. Rubio suggests that “an Internet overseen by governments will mean an end to the current Internet that has transformed the world and advanced freedom and prosperity.” But this isn’t quite right. An Internet overseen by other governments may well mean that; an Internet overseen by the United States, on the other hand, would mean nothing of the sort, as the past two decades have adequately demonstrated.