This month, the United Nations revived a latent desire to wrest control of the Internet away from the United States. Congress, the State Department, and Americans of all political stripes should join with those who revere free expression and steadfastly oppose the scheme.
In our ceaselessly over-governed age, the Internet serves as a shining example of the virtue of decentralized free enterprise and of America’s commitment to free expression. With the egregious exception of the totalitarian and theocratic states, governments play very little role in the content of the Web. In most countries, private businesses and agencies provide Internet access, Web hosting, and domain-name registration, and leave it to free individuals to do the rest. There is minimal regulation. It is no accident that there is no equivalent to the DMV in cyberspace; the majority of Internet users do not require licenses for anything they do online — a credit card will suffice.
Scattered, raw, and unregulated as it is, the Internet does have a couple of centralized elements. The first is a small file referred to as the “DNS Root Zone.” Put extremely simply, this is the apex of a master list of website addresses or “domain names,” such as “nationalreview.com.” This list is necessary in order to avoid multiple and contradictory registrations of the same address; think of it as the Internet’s Rolodex. The second is the allocation of “IP addresses,” which — again, to put it extremely simply — are the “phone numbers” used by each computer to contact and be contacted by others. Since 1998, these two services have been administered by a private Californian non-profit called ICANN, which is overseen with a very light touch by the U.S. Department of Commerce. (Prior to the creation of ICANN, the U.S. government ran the list in-house.) Ultimately, it is American control of these two vital services that so vexes the likes of Russia and China. And given the potential of the Internet to undermine the authority of authoritarian regimes, their chagrin is understandable.
Nonetheless, it is a wise rule to avoid fixing things that are not broken. The current system has served extremely well, allowing the Internet to flourish and grow with neither the dead hand of government interference holding it back nor baleful tyrants attempting to shape its structure in their own image. It is just 22 years since British computer engineer Tim Berners-Lee developed the language and architecture behind the World Wide Web and turned an electronic delivery mechanism that the American government had been developing since the 1960s into an information system with almost unlimited potential. His idea has caught on. The number of websites has grown from just 50 in 1992 to almost 377 million in mid-2012. In 1995, there were just 16 million Internet users; now, there are 2.28 billion. Such growth is a glowing testament to the salutary neglect of American stewardship.
But if History shows us anything, it is that freedom, however benign its effects, rarely endures unmolested. The urge to control is a strong one and, perhaps predictably, as the Internet grows out of its infancy, some have begun to ask why America gets to stay in charge. In this spirit, delegations from Russia and China — cheered on by both Brazil and India — have taken their case to the United Nations. Ostensibly, the aim of a transfer of authority would be to “regulate traffic,” to allow countries to tax transfers, and to impose “safety” controls on the system. These are undesirable in and of themselves, but the potential negative side effects are even worse.
Advocates of the move have impressed into service that most vague and pernicious of words: “democratic.” Why, they ask, should one country have such power over what is a dispersed, global product? Some may find this superficially convincing, but they should look more carefully. The Internet is already astonishingly democratic and, far from being threatened by American control, this democracy is the product of it. In reality, it is only free-speech violations — or, in the U.N.’s preferred term, “regulations” — that require the kind of democratic input being suggested.
America’s laissez-faire approach to its custody of the Internet does not require international approval to yield beneficial results. Quite the opposite, in fact: American involvement keeps censorship at a minimum. In some countries, restrictions on Internet freedom exist at the national level, but as long as the United States maintains control of the central elements, there is no mechanism for individual governments to export their censorship. The government of China can erect a virtual fence that prevents its own citizens from seeing material that is critical of the government, but it has no agency over those outside of its borders and it cannot make foreign material disappear completely.
Were others to gain control, this could change dramatically. The oddly named United Nations Human Rights Council is fond of passing resolutions that limit free speech, and often enjoys considerable support when it does so. There seems little doubt that the HRC could assemble a majority that agreed that websites criticizing, say, Islam, were beyond the pale. And then, in the name of “democracy,” it could shut down at the source sites that violated its codes, blocking them for all users.
The very idea of an open, distributed, and decentralized network that is open to anybody who wishes to participate is anathema to those who would restrict the human spirit. By the same token, it sits very comfortably with American foundational principles. Its rigorous protection of free expression in a world all too comfortable with censorship renders the United States an outlier. This is the natural home for the backbone of the Internet. It must continue to be so.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.