The United States has held a major oversight role over the Internet since early in its history. Since 1998 when the Department of Commerce took over management of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet has changed the course of history in ways few could have imagined over a decade ago. What was oncean obscure project deep in government bureaucracy has become so ingrained into daily life that imaging a future without the advances made possible through the Internet is unfathomable.
But in an apparent desire to stop a good thing, the Obama administration has proposed moving ICANN oversight to an unidentified group of global, non-governmental Internet stakeholders. Thankfully, the administration is backing off its original fast-track implementation plan, but the idea remains a bad one.
Under President Obama’s original proposal, control of ICANN, the entity that manages the Internet’s domain name system – not a trivial thing – would move to an unidentified group of global, non-governmental Internet stakeholders next summer.
Under U.S. control, the Internet has been free from government censorship. That might not remain the case if foreign states hostile to U.S. values start driving decisions at ICANN, risking the potential erosion of basic freedoms Americans enjoy relative to Internet use as the world’s most powerful communication tool.
Reporters Without Borders ranks North Korea at 179th, Iran 173rd and Russia 152nd out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of information. These countries all censor the Internet in their own countries. Non-democratic regimes like these could potentially vote together to block sites on the global Internet. We also risk a spike in domain name “squatting,” where an entity with less that honorable intentions attempts to co-opt a recognized brand’s Internet identity. We might also expect a host of new economic regulations that would discourage investment and innovation in this sphere.
Going international with ICANN opens the door to a potential power grab from authoritarian regimes and is rife with unintended consequences. As The Washington Times pointed out, “the Obama administration’s proclivity to rely on cooperation from the ‘international community’ — rather than U.S. leadership — has not always produced hoped-for outcomes.”
With the administration now pumping the brakes, there is time for Congress to act. The House has already passed the DOTCOM Act of 2015 by a wide margin. If it were to become law, the bill gives Congress the opportunity to review and/or reject any administration plan to relinquish U.S. oversight of the Internet.
The administration is going in search of a solution without a problem. The Internet’s meteoric growth and vitality speaks to the good job the Commerce Department is already doing.
Reacting to the administration’s announcement of a delay, ICANN officials said the move was necessary in order to give the global community additional time to complete its work. Instead of fretting over timelines, the plan should be permanently shelved. Otherwise, things could look a lot different the next time you open an Internet browser.