‘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.
Senator Scott seems at one level to recognize this, contending that “what we consider freedom of speech is uniquely American” and lamenting that the United States’ record stands in stark contrast to those of the United Nations, China, and Russia — and, for that matter, every other country that wishes to expand its purchase. He is right. As we are reminded from time to time by the small-but-vocal clique of authoritarians who remain appalled by the fact, on the question of free expression the United States remains an exquisite outlier. Here, one may criticize the government well beyond the point at which it becomes seditious; here, there are no “hate speech” laws; here, one cannot deploy a heckler’s veto, justifying oneself on the absurd grounds that one is “offended” or “hurt”; here, it is extremely difficult successfully to sue someone for libel. Sure, the United States may not “control” the content of the Internet in any meaningful way, and ICANN may currently have limited capacity to censor and to block. Nevertheless, it does have some power — and enough that others covet it and wish to be involved in its direction.
Senator Rubio is at his most winsome when he is expounding on the beauty of American exceptionalism — especially when his expositions take a compare-and-contrast form. Today, he concedes both that “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,” and that “these countries do not care for the multi-stakeholder model of governance or our commitment to it.” In which case, I will ask again: Why consider the idea at all?
Suppose that the issue at hand were the First Amendment, the purpose of which is to set the protection of free expression beyond the grasp of both transient democratic majorities and of the political machinations of the ruling class. It would be self-evidently preposterous for a politician to react to the news that the state intended to “move to a multi-stakeholder model” by announcing a) that, yes, there were swaths of people out there who would like to use that transition to undermine the integrity of the shield, but b) that he was in favor of change in principle anyway. In such an instance, would not the proper reaction be to ask why anyone who cared about liberty would take such a considerable risk?
Hearts often being unknowable things, Senator Scott’s maxim is a wise one. Profitable as it might be for the president’s critics to guess haphazardly, we cannot be sure what prompted the administration’s decision to transition away from American control. I suppose we should not try. This instinct, however, serves as a guard against conjecture, not against inquiry. If the United States Congress ignores this issue entirely — as, save for two senators, it is – it will be indulging in a grotesque abdication of its responsibility to the public, and a de facto renunciation of its role within the nation’s constitutional order. Two cheers for Senators Scott and Rubio for starting the ball rolling, for grasping straightforwardly what is at stake here, and for calling for an investigation into what is an extremely serious matter. And here’s hoping that, with a bit more digging and a little help from their friends, they’ll win out and earn the third.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.