Honey, They Gave Away the Internet

You may have missed it, because there wasn’t much news coverage.

Yes, there have been a lot of competing stories, some of them indeed quite important. There’s the frightening erosion of our military position in Afghanistan (which withers, while our commander-in-chief dithers), the health care tug of war, and of course, the ongoing job-killing, deficit-exploding POR (Pelosi-Obama-Reid) economy, which the nation has endured since the summer of 2008.

But a few relatively and quite obviously unimportant stories have consumed way too much of the available oxygen. Yes, Chicago’s Olympic bid smackdown did expose Barack Obama and his handlers as over-proud, naive, or both. And yes, it was quite unusual for Saturday Night Live to openly mock a hard-left president after only eight months in office. Establishment media’s obsession with playing presidential defense in these two matters has exposed their hypocrisy to many casual news consumers who may finally understand that they can’t automatically trust what they see out of the big three networks, CNN, and others.

But meanwhile, you may not have noticed that our government gave away control of the Internet. Here’s how the UK Guardian reported it:

After complaints about American dominance of the Internet and growing disquiet in some parts of the world, Washington has said it will relinquish some control over the way the network is run and allow foreign governments more of a say in the future of the system.

ICANN -- the official body that ultimately controls the development of the Internet thanks to its oversight of web addresses such as .com, .net, and .org -- said today that it was ending its agreement with the U.S. government.

The deal, part of a contract negotiated with the U.S. Department of Commerce, effectively pushes California-based ICANN towards a new status as an international body with greater representation from companies and governments around the globe.

Given the controversy raised nearly four years ago when the idea of Commerce loosening its reins on ICANN first became a serious topic in advance of a UN-sponsored conference in Tunisia, and how roundly it was rejected at the time, it’s more than a little surprising that what occurred last week has generated relatively little coverage or comment.

The outcome is also an about-face from what might have been expected based on news from not very many weeks ago. In early August, a group of House lawmakers made it very clear that what has been a series of understandings renewed every few years needed to be replaced with “a permanent instrument to which ICANN and the Department of Commerce are co-signatories.” The signers of the letter requesting that action included House Committee on Energy and Commerce chairman Henry Waxman and that group’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet chairman Rick Boucher. Both Waxman and Boucher are Democrats.

Clever wording, guys. Nothing was said about how things might change, giving readers a false sense of security that nothing would change. Heck, searchers trying to keep up with Waxman and Boucher’s doings probably wouldn’t have found the news in the first place, as their names don’t even appear in the article I linked in the previous paragraph and several others I found. You’d think from reading these reports that they were only trying to set into stone the U.S.-controlled situation that had been in place for over a decade.

Uh, not exactly. At National Review’s Corner blog, Brett D. Schaefer and James L. Gattuso explained that what happened could be a first step towards United Nations control over the planet’s digital information and commercial streams:

Under the previous arrangement, the U.S. government retained veto power over ICANN’s decisions. Although the U.S. took a hands-off approach, the relationship helped insulate the Internet from political meddling by states that were threatened or frustrated by its freedom. … The United Nations has sought for some time to acquire authority over ICANN, at the behest of a number of countries who wish to tax or regulate it.

Quite simply, the decision of the Obama administration increases the vulnerability of the Internet to political pressure, censorship, and strangling regulation and taxation.

Gazing backwards through the lens of four years of painful experience, let’s look at the principal reasons why this should not have been allowed to happen.

First and foremost, there is the issue of human rights. In the Tunisian conference run-up, the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders noted, “Those who oppose UN or other multilateral control note that some of the governments pushing hardest for a change are also the world’s most repressive when it comes to preventing free speech on the Internet.” One of those governments was that of Tunisia itself, which censored the Internet within the country during that same WSIS conference.

In early 2006, with the help of mostly American-developed technology, China began aggressively censoring the Internet with the primary purpose of detecting and stifling political dissent. Today, Iran’s mullahs still hold the upper hand over millions of protesters in no small part because they have shut down Internet-based communications efforts. Now that it has been proven that the net can be successfully controlled by sufficiently persistent and ruthless governments, why would we allow them to get closer to involvement in deciding its future direction?

Then there’s the “unilateralism” argument. Y’know, the mean old USA shouldn’t be such control freaks, should be nice, and should just share. But the facts are that the U.S. created it and that U.S.-based entrepreneurs extended it into the wonderful freewheeling vehicle of commerce and expression it is today. Given that investment and the benefits it has bestowed on the entire world, it’s more than a little galling that an outfit like the UN feels like it has a presumptive right not just to share in its control, but to in effect be in control. On what basis?

Putting aside supposedly hurt feelings, what have we done to hold back other countries? Reporters Without Borders wrote four years ago that “it has to be admitted that the U.S. has managed to develop the Internet without major problems and that it broadly respects online freedom of expression.” That’s still true. So where’s the beef?

Four years ago, there was concern that other dissatisfied countries would develop their own alternative Internet(s). First of all, there’s already the ability to do most of that within the existing domain name structure; otherwise, China wouldn’t have its Great Firewall. Second, any other country that wants to invest the probable billions necessary to make an alternative happen is more than welcome to try. You’ll notice that in four years no one has.

The changes that could result from Commerce’s move won’t happen all at once and the most troubling ones may not happen for years. But over time, the following future for the Internet, once seen as inconceivable, now seems all too possible:

  • It will have the lack of financial accountability characteristic of tinpot, third-world dictators.

  • It will be hampered by the incredible level of corruption already found in the United Nations as a whole.

  • It will facilitate the lack of respect for human rights, online freedom, personal privacy, intellectual property, and global brand names mainland China and Iran are so noted for.

It is inexcusable that this administration has made these long-term scenarios all too real. Among many other despots and tyrants, Hugo Chavez, who would love to figure out a way to ensure that videos such as this one never see the light of day, is surely pleased.