Ceding Control of the Internet to Foreign Governments

Back in March, the U.S. government announced that it would relinquish control over ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This is the organization that is responsible for managing how domain names are assigned on the internet, and until now, it has been under fairly tight supervision from the Commerce Department.

The announcement was met with two different reactions from people who understand and care about internet freedom. One group, seizing on the Commerce Department’s assurances that ICANN would be moving towards a model of private management, were hopeful that the lack of government involvement could lead to a better, more efficient internet. Just as a government run post office will never outperform a privately run one, they reasoned, it was right for government to relax its hold on internet domains.

The second group, while still recognizing the benefits of privatization, smelled a rat. They viewed the ICANN decision as way to allow foreign government to exercise more control over the internet. Government abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of U.S. control, it was realistic to assume that countries like China and Russia would be eager to establish a powerful presence in internet regulation.

Both these points of view had their merits, but in the intervening six months it has become clear that the second, realist reaction was the correct one. We are indeed about to see more foreign control over how the internet is run.

Under new guidelines, ICANN will be required to adopt the advice of a “Government Advisory Committee,” unless the members of ICANN’s board of directors hold a two-thirds majority vote to the contrary. The board can currently override these recommendation with a simple majority.

The Government Advisory Committee lists representatives from over 140 countries, many of which have been openly hostile towards internet freedom. The famous “Great Firewall of China” is just one example of how foreign governments represented by the committee try to limit and control the flow of information. For ICANN to cede more authority to people who are actively trying to reduce, rather than expand, the liberating power of the internet is something we should all be concerned about.

While we must certainly remain vigilant to prevent our own government from regulating and taxing the internet by supporting bills like the Internet Tax Freedom Act and opposing ones like the Marketplace Fairness Act, it must be admitted that foreign governments currently present a far greater threat to the free flow of information.

The comment period for ICANN’s proposed rule closed on September 14th, but you can still make your voice heard by sending an email to oppose giving foreign governments more power over the internet.