Last week, President Obama proudly announced at the United Nations the steps taken by his administration to “embrace a new era of engagement” in international affairs. These actions included supporting the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, addressing global warming through the U.N., joining the Human Rights Council, signing the Disabilities Convention, supporting the Millennium Development Goals, and paying America’s arrears to the United Nations without asking the organization to implement reforms to prevent those payments from being misused.
Well, we can add another dubious decision to the list of sacrifices the Obama administration has made to alter of international engagement. Today it was announced that the administration has agreed to cede much U.S. control over the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which regulates and manages the Domain Name System under which Internet Protocol addresses and registration of top-level domains (such as .org and .com) are assigned.
According to a story in the Guardian:
The deal, part of a contract negotiated with the US department of commerce, effectively pushes California-based Icann towards a new status as an international body with greater representation from companies and governments around the globe.
Icann had previously been operating under the auspices of the American government, which had control of the net thanks to its initial role in developing the underlying technologies used for connecting computers together.
But the fresh focus will give other countries a more prominent role in determining what takes place online, and even the way in which it happens – opening the door for a virtual United Nations, where many officials gather to discuss potential changes to the internet.
Under the previous arrangement, the U.S. government retained veto power over ICANN’s decisions. Although the U.S. took a hands-off approach, the relationship helped insulate the Internet from political meddling by states that were threatened or frustrated by its freedom. As I discussed in a 2005 Heritage WebMemo, the United Nations has sought for some time to acquire authority over ICANN, at the behest of a number of countries who wish to tax or regulate it. As noted in the paper:
For decades, the Internet has developed with a minimum of government interference. The core governance of the medium has been performed by non-governmental entities and overseen by the U.S. government, which has exercised a light regulatory touch. It is no coincidence that the medium has prospered from this benign neglect, growing from a research curiosity into a major force in the world economy and an invaluable venue for the exchange of information. . . .
The result of a UN-controlled and regulated Internet would be that non-democratic countries that oppose the right to free speech such as China and grasping, anti-market impulses like those of the European Union would have a greater voice in guiding the Internet in a direction away from “freedom, education, and innovation.” If the Internet cannot be a government-free zone, it should be governed in a manner that minimizes restrictions rather than imposing international standards that restrict Internet freedom. Given the stakes, the U.S. must stand firm and reject efforts to internationalize governance of the Internet.
Quite simply, the decision of the Obama administration increases the vulnerability of the Internet to political pressure, censorship, and strangling regulation and taxation. Welcome to “responsibility and leadership in the 21st century.”
– Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives. James L. Gattuso is Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.