The Corner

Congress Should Act to Protect the Internet

Earlier in the week, I wrote about the Commerce Department’s baffling decision to relinquish its oversight of ICANN, the keeper of the Internet’s “guts.” This, I argued, was an “unforced error” and a “shame” — a classic case of government electing to fix a system that wasn’t broken. Most worrying, I suggested, was that the move played right into the hands of the likes of Russia and China, both of which are desperate to expand their influence.

In the Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz takes my warning one step further. Not only has the U.S. opened up the Internet to interference from outsiders who do not share its commitment to liberty, Crovitz writes, but it may well have let in the United Nations — the worst of all possible options:

The ITU is now a lead candidate to replace the U.S. in overseeing Icann. The Commerce Department says it doesn’t want to transfer responsibility to the ITU or other governments, but has suggested no alternative. Icann’s CEO, Mr. Chehadé, told reporters after the Obama administration’s announcement that U.S. officials are “not saying that they’d exclude governments—governments are welcome, all governments are welcome.”

Ms. Dyson calls U.N. oversight a “fate worse than death” for the Internet.

The alternative to control over the Internet by the U.S. is not the elimination of any government involvement. It is, rather, the involvement of many other governments, some authoritarian, at the expense of the U.S. Unless the White House plan is reversed, Washington will hand the future of the Web to the majority of countries in the world already on record hoping to close the open Internet.

Nevertheless, Crovitz thinks that it is possible that there will be a popular backlash:

The Obama administration’s move could become a political issue in the U.S. as people realize the risks to the Internet. And Congress may have the ability to force the White House to drop its plan: The general counsel of the Commerce Department opined in 2000 that because there were no imminent plans to transfer the Icann contract, “we have not devoted the possibly substantial staff resources that would be necessary to develop a legal opinion as to whether legislation would be necessary to do so.”

Regardless of whether the Commerce Department needs legislative approval to transfer its authority, Congress can certainly prohibit it from doing so — and over a presidential veto if necessary. It should do so, reversing Commerce’s decision and maintaining American oversight.

The support for such a move seems to be there. In 2012, the House unanimously warned the ITU to keep its hands in its pockets. A similar bill, introduced into the Senate by Marco Rubio and Claire McCaskill, passed without a single “nay.”

Rubio has been active on this question, promising a fortnight ago that he would be introducing legislation to ensure the web’s integrity:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) plans to introduce legislation to prevent a “takeover” of the Internet by the United Nations or another government regime.

Speaking Monday at Google’s office in Washington, the possible presidential contender said he will introduce legislation to codify U.S. support of an open Internet as other countries attempt to control its growth.

“Since the Web is worldwide — and since it has proven such an effective catalyst for pro-democratic revolution — it has become a battleground that many fight to control,” he said.

Rubio pointed to 42 countries that limit the Internet within their borders and “now wish to take this further by exerting control over the way the Internet is governed and regulated internationally.”

A few days after he made this vow, the Commerce Department (quietly) announced its plans. Well, Senator. What are you waiting for?

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