Preparing for the Great Global Internet Handover

Every suggestion I read about how to prepare for the great handover of Internet domain control to some vaporous global organism makes me more convinced this is a really bad idea.  For example, the Heritage Foundation offers a brief, well-considered set of precautions, outlined by a group of four distinguished researchers and analysts, that makes my hackles go up, because I don’t see what leverage we have to ensure any of their suggestions are implemented properly.

The Heritage team is clearly aware of that difficulty, because they advise Congress to “specifically instruct NTIA [the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration], at penalty of losing its funding, to renew the ICANN contract” should their list of requirements fail to be met.

Forgive my skepticism that (a) any segment of the Obama Administration would actually be willing, under virtually any set of circumstances, to abruptly pull the plug on a globalization process, and (b) that Congress would actually defund the NTIA if they refused to do so.  The further we get into this process, the harder it will be to stop.  Congress might be able to throw on the brakes now, but the idea of pulling out when global control is just over the horizon reminds me of the suggestion that we can get amnesty for illegal aliens under way now, but call a halt in a couple of years if border security triggers aren’t met.

In fact, I suspect the ICANN handover would become extremely difficult to halt once the new multi-national oversight body has actually been defined.  Right now, the only premonitions we have about this organization are copious promises of what it won’t be.  We are assured it won’t be some tumor growing out of the United Nations’  International Telecommunication Union, and it won’t be dominated by ugly dictatorships looking to censor their political adversaries.  Once the new oversight body has actually be constituted and a charter drawn up, renewing the American government’s contract with ICANN will be interpreted as an insult to everyone involved in the prospective multi-stakeholder replacement.

The lack of definition for the new oversight organization troubles the Heritage panel, which warns that “announcing its intent to end U.S. oversight before finalizing the details of the successor body may allow other nations to intrude on the process in a counterproductive matter,” including persistent demands for control from the aforementioned ITU, which would serve as a back door for China, Russia, and other authoritarian regimes to control web domain registration.

But while we are warned of the dangers inherent in handing over ICANN, the proposed solution is to “establish an Internet freedom strategy,” which boils down to several different ways of restating the importance of keeping the Internet as free as American stewardship has made it.  We need a “clear strategy” to reach the goal of an open Internet, pursued by “a coalition of like-minded nations, businesses, and non-governmental organizations,” and the remodeled ICANN had better be ready to “submit to an independent auditing body comprised of government, business, and NGO representatives to monitor its finances and activities,” as well as demonstrating its technical capabilities to protect the priceless, indispensable table of website names and Internet addresses from “malicious interference.”

All of which is quite sensible… but how do we really ensure any of that, especially after the deal is officially done in late 2015?  What leverage do we have over a world that is universally less committed to free speech than the United States, which in turn is less committed than it used to be?  Here, freedom of expression is increasingly negotiable, over-ridden by political considerations such as the need to avoid giving offense to protected groups.  Everywhere else, the negotiations are pretty much over.

Is there really any substitute whatsoever for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?  We may be about to find out – perhaps not during the early, cautious days of 2016, but Americans will rapidly have less to say about whatever happens next.  The Heritage authors perceptively warn that international goodwill generated by the ICANN handover is likely to be effervescent; I suspect the negative repercussions of essentially conceding that the American government can no longer be trusted with Internet security will last much longer.

“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,” Heritage writes.  “Surrendering U.S.. oversight of ICANN was a key objective of many nations that wish to curtail freedom of the Internet.”

And as we should all know by now, international affairs tend to be dominated by whoever is most committed to realizing their key objectives.


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