Earlier this month U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced that it was giving up oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN as it is known. ICANN is a US non-profit created in 1998 with the purpose of managing the internet’s Domain Name System or DNS. The company also has been responsible for managing top tier domain names like .com, .org and .gov. The US government responsible for the creation of the internet beginning in the 1960’s has maintained some oversight of its functions but has faced criticism from more than a few nations who do not like the idea of a free and uncensored internet.
According to the Washington Post “Pressure to let go of the final vestiges of U.S. authority over the system of Web addresses and domain names that organize the Internet has been building for more than a decade and was supercharged by the backlash last year to revelations about National Security Agency surveillance.”
The Obama administration’s announcement that it would not be renewing ICANN’s contract in 2015 and doing so without a firm plan in place to transition oversight has caused a stir among many here in the US and from unlikely bedfellows. Former President Bill Clinton speaking at a panel discussion Friday night regarding internet governance stated “A lot of people … have been trying to take this authority from the U.S. for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom and limiting it and having governments protect their backsides instead of empowering their people..
Heritage Foundation fellows Brett D. Schaefer, James L. Gattuso, Paul Rosenzweig and David Inserra weighed in essentially agreeing with Clinton stating “The U.S. has a strong interest in maintaining an open and free Internet. If Internet functions were harmed, not only would there be economic damage, but a vital forum for freedom of speech and political dissent would be compromised. While the transition of Internet stewardship from the U.S. may have been inevitable, it is unclear why the U.S. surrendered its greatest point of leverage prematurely. Surrendering U.S. oversight of ICANN was a key objective of many nations that wish to curtail freedom on the Internet.”
The danger lies giving a governing body like the UN which is made up of countries like China, Russia or Iran, not known for their support of free speech or any type of dissent, to weigh in and regulate the internet and its functioning. The consequences that would have are not small. The internet has been a bulwark for freedom and communication across the globe. It has been our government’s ambassador at large for freedom and democracy. Anyone including the oppressed with a connection has a voice that can be heard around the globe by millions. The disenfranchised can see for themselves what it looks like to live in a free country as a opposed to one that is “secure”. A good example of the effectiveness of the net was when world wide attention was brought on Syria and their use of poison gas during their civil war, something that would not have been readily known otherwise had it not been for the internet.
One thing is clear; the US should not surrender oversight quickly regardless of how bad some in the international community want that to happen. A clear plan must first be in place that guarantees a smooth transition to a new governing body that is completely on board with the principles of freedom and uncensored speech. The US has provided the ordinary citizens of the world a voice that must not be silenced by authoritarian governments or well-meaning but dim-witted bureaucrats in the United Nations assembly.