Guest Editorial


Jindal: Obama's Internet Folly

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Gov. Bobby JindalIt was an act generations from now will regret: The country that invented the Internet unilaterally decided to give it away – jeopardizing the freedoms of billions of citizens the world over in the process.

Last month, the Obama Administration's Commerce Department announced it would transfer control of the Internet's essential functions from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a Los Angeles-based non-profit, to the "global Internet community." It is unclear exactly who or what will replace ICANN, but one thing is certain: the successor organization won't increase online freedom, openness, and transparency.

If anything, ICANN's replacement could empower hostile regimes with a greater voice in the Internet's governance, allowing censorship and repression to expand and flourish. And you don't just have to take my word for it: Bill Clinton opposes the ICANN transfer too, saying that "a lot of these so-called multi-stakeholders are really governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet."

A list of members of the United Nations' Human Rights Council shows the dangers of the Obama Administration's internationalist approach. Among the Council's current members is Venezuela – currently engaging in a violent campaign of repression under President Nicolas Maduro. In response to negative media coverage of the unrest, government forces attacked CNN cameras, and ordered Internet service providers to "block websites with content contrary to the interests of the Government." If these thuggish actions qualify Venezuela for membership in the UN Human Rights Council, what role will Maduro's government get to play in governing – and censoring – the Internet?

Last November, the United Nations elected China to join its Human Rights Council. China's communist authorities have adapted Chairman Mao's famous dictum to the 21st century – for them, power does not come just from the barrel of a gun, but also from pixels on a screen.
Thus the infamous "Great Firewall of China," which blocks many web addresses and websites, along with content related to "subversive" topics like the Tiananmen Square protests. Reporters without Borders even suspects that China has turned online censorship into an export industry, selling surveillance technology to nations like Cuba (also a Human Rights Council member) and Zimbabwe. Yet as the world's largest country, China will undoubtedly demand a seat at the table as part of the "global community" the Obama Administration wants to govern the Internet.
Then there's the case of Russia, also elected to the UN Human Rights Council last fall. Russia's invasion of the Crimea – aided by immediate censorship of pro-Ukrainian websites by Russian authorities – leaves little doubt of that country's cavalier disregard for the freedom of other nations, and its own people. Yet even as his half-hearted actions failed to preserve Ukraine's territorial sovereignty, President Obama seems perfectly willing to surrender America's sovereignty over the Internet, giving autocrats like Vladimir Putin a greater say in how the Internet does – or, as online censorship increases, does not – operate.

Sadly, the Commerce Department's proposal to transfer control of the World Wide Web to the "global Internet community" is consistent with President Obama's desire to promote multi-lateralism over America's national interests. During his 2008 campaign, candidate Obama famously addressed crowds in Germany as a "citizen of the world." But the world doesn't look to countries like North Korea, China, and Russia for openness and free speech – it looks to our shores.

The country that invented the Internet is also the country that enshrined free speech as part of our First Amendment to the Constitution. Both concepts have transformed the globe – and for the better. From the online communities that gave birth to the Arab Spring, to the spread of commerce around the world, to the rapid spread of free ideas, the Internet has promoted democracy and freedom throughout the globe. Given this track record of unparalleled success, why should the United States give people like Vladimir Putin, Nicolas Maduro, Iranian mullahs, or other oppressors access to its governance?

The answer is simple: We shouldn't. Before giving those autocrats a greater say in the Internet's governance, Congress should first have its say, and block the Obama Administration's proposed transfer. Freedom is a terrible thing to fritter away for the sake of giving tyrants a stronger voice.

Bobby Jindal is Governor of the State of Louisiana