Politics & Policy

The End of a Free Internet?

It's time to mobilize Congress against Obama’s plan to relinquish our authority over the Internet.

When the new Congress shows up on Tuesday, it’s going to have lots to worry about, but there’s one serious problem at risk of being overlooked. And that really can’t be allowed to happen; it’s much too important:

In 2015, the Obama administration plans to hand over control of ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — to international governance. ICANN oversees the superstructure of the Internet, and the American Department of Commerce oversees ICANN. The plan for handing our authority to the global community would mean oversight by censors and despots in China, Russia, and Iran.

American governance of the Internet has been incredibly benevolent and altogether hands-off. Which other countries would you trust not to interfere with the free exchange of ideas? Dictatorships in the Far East? Dictatorships in the Middle East? Banana republics? Eastern Europe’s oligarchies?

What about Western Europe’s democracies? Every country in Europe, aside from Belarus, is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression.” But, it adds, this right “carries with it duties and responsibilities,” which make it subject, therefore, to “such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society.” And, of course, that freedom of expression can be curtailed, as necessary, in “the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

So, Europe has its own take on the timeworn cliché “Freedom isn’t free.” Which is why anti-sharia Dutch politico Geert Wilders — who’s under constant, credible threat of murder for his opposition to sharia — is constantly on trial for insulting sharia.

Even the U.K., once a bulwark against Europe’s dictatorial inclinations, has banned “insulting words or behavior.” In consequence, an Oxford undergrad was arrested for telling a policeman his horse was “gay,” and a teenager was locked up for carrying a sign that read “Scientology is a dangerous cult.” (Which it is.) In fact, under Britain’s Public Order Act of 1986, it’s illegal to say something “with intent to cause a person . . . distress.” And under the English–Welsh Malicious Communications Act of 1988, it’s illegal to transmit “communications” for the “purpose of causing distress or anxiety.”

It is a depressing but undeniable fact: Our Bill of Rights is unique; God bless America.

When the idea of an ICANN surrender was first floated by the Obama administration, it was instantly unpopular. This administration has a habit of presenting unpopular ideas as faits accomplis — Cuba, Bergdahl, the China climate deal (such as it was), any number of EPA regulations, executive amnesty, health-care rule changes, and so on. Congress has to start protecting America’s stake in ICANN right now, or it may not get the chance.

The Obama administration has been accused of consolidating government power in the federal government, and federal power in the executive branch. In fact, the administration is happy to relinquish power, so long as it isn’t relinquished to the American people. It wants to regulate the Internet like a utility — to ensure fairness — but it’s happy to let Putin and Beijing have a say in what organizations can function with “.com” addresses. That is ludicrous.

Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is steeped in naïveté. He’s done irreparable damage in Cuba, where the Castros were on their last legs. He’s done irreparable damage in the Middle East, where defeat was snatched from the jaws of Iraqi victory, and where lifting sanctions saved Iran’s foundering economy. He’s done irreparable damage in East Asia by genuflecting to Beijing’s dictators. He’s done irreparable damage in Europe by scrapping the Czech–Polish missile-defense system and gift-wrapping the Crimea. This fait-accompli phone-and-pen nonsense is incredibly serious.

But this time, Congress has advance warning. And it knows what’s at stake. If it does nothing, it will have done irreparable damage to the freedom of everyone who uses or is affected by the Internet. Which is to say, everyone. It will be Congress’s fault.

So write your congressman. Or better yet, go to his office and bang on the door till he answers.

— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.

Josh GelernterJosh Gelernter is a former columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.