Giving Up the Internet: Still Risky

by Ajit Pai
Relinquishing control of ICANN to international stakeholders could empower repressive regimes.

Last month, the Turkish government blocked access to Twitter in an attempt to silence its opponents. When critics protested the change via YouTube, the government tried to cut off access to that site as well. Governments like Turkey have no formal role in Internet governance today, so such censorship stops at the border, and citizens can access foreign networks to express their views.

But will that continue to be the case? Today, representatives from around the globe are convening in São Paulo, Brazil, for NETmundial, a summit billed as a “Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance.” The gathering is being co-hosted by twelve countries, including Brazil, the United States, and — you guessed it — Turkey. They are welcoming governments with an established record of hostility to Internet freedom: Russian, Cuban, and Chinese representatives are scheduled to give opening remarks.

Is it any wonder that so many Americans were alarmed by the U.S. Commerce Department’s recent announcement that the United States intends to relinquish its role in Internet governance? Right now, the Commerce Department contracts with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to maintain the “root” server of the Internet’s domain-name system (DNS). The DNS is critical for all of us because it translates easy-to-remember domain names (like Twitter.com) into the numeric IP addresses used to locate online content.

But last month, the Commerce Department, to borrow a term from the sports world, announced that stewardship of ICANN and DNS operations will be handed off to a player to be named later. Specifically, the Commerce Department directed ICANN to gather “global stakeholders” and develop a proposal for transitioning the role the U.S. has played to “the global multistakeholder community.”

I have serious doubts about this decision. The current model of Internet governance has been a tremendous success. It’s allowed the Internet to remain free and operate reliably. If America steps back, foreign governments will be all too eager to step forward.

The Commerce Department has assured us that it will not accept a “government-led or intergovernmental organization solution” as a replacement for the U.S. role. But just ruling out the possibility that foreign governments will control the new steward isn’t good enough. Our red line should be any change to the Internet’s governance structure that would provide repressive foreign governments with any more influence at all over the Internet.

And even if that standard can be met, how can we ensure that foreign governments won’t be able to seize control of ICANN’s functions at some point in the future? After all, at a 2012 gathering in Dubai, the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for the first time expanded its jurisdiction to include the Internet, despite promises before the gathering that no such decision would be made. The vote was 89–55, with countries such as Russia, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and — you guessed it again — Turkey on the winning side. If the majority of countries in the United Nations voted to transfer authority over ICANN to the ITU after we relinquished our role, how could we stop such a transition? To date, I haven’t heard a reassuring response to this concern.

One might ask: Wouldn’t reducing or eliminating our oversight responsibilities benefit our relations with other countries? After all, some foreign governments oppose our current role. But appeasing anti-U.S. sentiment isn’t the answer. After all, as former president Bill Clinton has pointed out, many of these complaints are coming from “governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet.” Indeed, this rationale reminds me of the “blame America first” attitude that Jeane Kirkpatrick spoke about at the U.N. in the 1980s.

On the contrary, the United States should not apologize for its leadership in promoting a free Internet. And we should not hesitate to tout the benefits of American stewardship. When it comes to protecting the Internet as we have known it — an unprecedented platform for free expression, innovation, and democratization — the United States can’t afford to lead from behind.

Some argue that by placating anti-American hostility with a step like this, we will diminish calls for the Internet to be run by an intergovernmental body, such as the ITU. But given the events described above, I am not so optimistic. Rather, I worry that we are playing right into the hands of foreign governments that would savor a tighter grasp over the Internet.

All of this means that we must be exceedingly cautious when it comes to overhauling the Internet’s governance structure. Any ill-considered change could undermine Internet freedoms within particular countries or even on a global scale — repressive regimes could manipulate DNS operations to extend their censorship beyond their borders.

Repressive foreign governments must not be allowed to have a seat at the table when critical decisions are made about who should perform this vital oversight function. And that’s why the burden is on those favoring this momentous change to prove there is no risk it will endanger Internet freedom, now or in the future. I suspect they’ll have a hard time doing so.

Ajit Pai is a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

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