What is the most important institution governing free and secure use of the Internet? It isn’t the National Security Agency. It is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This U.S.-based non-profit is tasked under a long-standing contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce to assign and maintain domain names on the Internet. ICANN has gone to great lengths to ensure that its Board of Directors represents the widest possible range of stakeholders from around the globe. That said, it is still subject to U.S. laws, including the Constitution’s prohibition on interference with freedom of speech and the press. In a world where many nations seek to restrict both of those basic civil liberties and more than a few have imposed controls over their citizens’ access to the Internet, who controls something as mundane as domain names is actually very important.
So we should instinctively view with alarm the Obama Administration’s decision to abandon its long-standing support of ICANN. Since ICANN already represents the people of the world and nobody has complained about either the quality or character of its services, and the contract doesn’t cost very much, why make such a change? This is truly a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
There is no obvious organization or corporation waiting in the wings to take over for ICANN. This in itself is a problem. At the very least, this is likely to inject uncertainty and instability in a system that has done extremely well for more than 15 years. It could even elicit “land rush” behavior by public and private entities, even countries. Some have speculated that ICANN’s responsibilities would likely gravitate to the United Nations, an organization well-known both for the efficiency of its operations and for never letting politics color its activities. Pardon me if I worry about the fate of Israeli web sites if even a small portion of control of the Internet were in the hands of those who have sought to use various U.N. entities to conduct campaigns on the subject of Zionism as racism.
At worst, this could be the first step in turning control of one of the greatest instruments ever created for civil liberties, freedom of speech and democracy over to those dedicated to stamping out precisely these values. China, Russia, Iran and other states have shown they will go to almost any length to restrict their citizens’ access to information. They have proven equally determined to influence the free flow of ideas globally. ICANN’s roles and responsibilities would be a target too juicy to resist.
There are those who believe that these concerns are wildly overstated. They assert that any effort to restrict access to the Internet or indirectly impose censorship would be stoutly resisted by operators of domain name registries and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Of course, this depends on who is trying to impose such controls and the leverage they possess. The People’s Republic of China has shown that it is possible to “put the squeeze” on the world’s biggest ISPs. Such an argument is extraordinarily naïve.
Congress must act to prevent the Obama Administration from “giving away the store.” It should direct the Department of Commerce to continue the contract with ICANN past its current 2015 termination date. Congressshould also hold a hearing to find out who the genius was behind this idea.
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