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.