Guest Editorial


Sony, Facebook prove why we can't give away Internet

Bookmark and Share

robert romanoRussia has convinced Facebook to ban a page calling for support of Alexei Navalny, a notable critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, inside of Russia.

And the North Korean government in a sophisticated, embarrassing hack of Sony Pictures, managed to get the production company to temporarily delay release of The Interview, a comedy that was to portray an assassination attempt of that country's supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

In both cases, foreign, dictatorial governments are bossing around private entities, using either the threat of force or other forms of sanction to suppress what would otherwise be simply the free expression of political speech in today's digital era.

This is why the Obama administration's plan to turn over Internet governance to a private non-profit, the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), in 2015 is an exceedingly bad idea.

In this case, we're talking about the authoritative functions that connect numerical Internet Protocol addresses with unique domain names. Under the current U.S. government contract with ICANN, users of the Internet at least have an ostensible First Amendment claim against any incidences of censorship that might arise under the current arrangement.

Plus, the U.S. government has a ready-made excuse — that is, national interest — to tell Beijing, Moscow, or Pyongyang to pound sand in the event they ever attempt to assert control over Internet governance.

So right out of the box, there are two obvious obstacles to foreign control over the Internet, one legal and the other sovereign interest, both of which stem from the fact that the functions are performed under U.S. government contract.

But if the U.S. turns over these functions to a private entity, ICANN will be subject to the same sorts of pressures that both Facebook and Sony have faced. And, both of those obstacles will have been removed, imperiling the freedom of information for a generation or more.

Now, the people who run ICANN and other global multistakeholders may in fact be really nice people, and yet here's a harsh lesson of history. Really nice people do not stand up so well to dictators.

We're certain that the people at Facebook and Sony are really nice, too, but that hasn't stopped them from folding like cheap tents in the face of modest pressure from these authoritarian governments.

The West's freedom of expression is not supposed to be subject to nuclear blackmail or otherwise, and yet here we are.

In that light, it would be remarkably foolish for the Obama administration to turn loose Internet governance switchboard functions to an organization that will be in no better position to withstand threats from abroad.

Fortunately, in the omnibus spending bill, Congress acted to defund the Commerce Department from relinquishing control over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions and the domain name system. Now Obama needs to comply.

This is not an argument over whether it would be better if the free market handled these functions as opposed to the Commerce Department. That is a false question, for either way, this is going to be a government-created monopoly that controls Internet governance.

The only question for future generations is whether, outside of U.S. stewardship, this will be a monopoly that can keep the Internet free and open and out of the hands those who would use these functions censor it.

The fact is that Commerce Department oversight of ICANN has helped to maintain freedom on the Internet. Why would we sacrifice that sort of accountability?

We are prepared to give away governance over the world's preeminent global communications network to a weak, supposed non-profit structure, in the face of global threats to the freedom to criticize tyrants and to simply express ourselves.

Have we gone mad?

This is why we can't have nice things.

Robert Romano is the senior editor of Americans for Limited Government.