What would the Internet look like if it were controlled by China? Or Russia? Or the United Nations?
The prospect is unnerving to say the least, but such a scenario is possible under an Obama administration plan to cede authority of the Web’s core architecture to a yet-to-be-determined global organization.
As one expert pointed out, not since President Carter’s 1977 giveaway of the Panama Canal – another U.S.-envisioned, U.S.-financed, world-changing project – has such an important American asset been cast aside for nothing.
The Obama administration has said it would turn over the powerful Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, known as ICANN, to a “global multistakeholder community” once its contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce expires in 2015.
The nonprofit ICANN manages the systems that enables all Internet-connected devices to find each other, including the “domain name” system that creates web addresses with such familiar endings as .com, .gov, or .org.
Unlike a purely technical venture that can be overseen by engineers, ICANN is a quasi-political entity – a type of online planning and zoning board – with a major say in who gets digital real estate and what they are allowed to do with it.
ICANN in American control gives the U.S. leverage in debates over how the Internet operates, and provides us with a trump card to fend off any international attacks on Internet freedom.
The process has worked well since 1998. If it’s not broken, why is Obama trying to “fix” it?
Critics of the ICANN turnover, including former President Bill Clinton, worry that ceding U.S. control opens the Internet to more influence by totalitarian regimes such as Russia or China.
“I understand in theory why we would like to have a multistakeholder process,” Clinton said recently. “I just know that a lot of these so-called multistakeholders are really governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet.”
Indeed, Russia and China were among seven countries that proposed stripping ICANN of much of its power during the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai.
Others worry the money-hungry U.N. will attempt to regulate ICANN through its International Telecommunications Union and institute a global tax on Web use to give the member-funded organization a unique revenue stream.
Given the U.N.’s history of corruption and dim views on individual freedoms, the world might almost be better off without an Internet than one where it is U.N.-controlled.
It is understandable the Internet’s global growth has driven other countries to demand more decision-making power, especially in light of Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency’s massive Internet-spying program.
But the NSA has nothing to do with ICANN, which has maintained the Internet fairly and openly for two decades.
“U.S. management of the Internet has been exemplary and there is no reason to give this away – especially in return for nothing,” former Bush administration State Department senior advisor Christian Whiton told The Daily Caller.
“This is the Obama equivalent of Carter’s decision to give away the Panama Canal – only with possibly much worse consequences.”