Op-Ed: ICANN Transition Protects Internet Freedom


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

From strengthening cybersecurity, to promoting the free flow of information worldwide, to expanding broadband access, the Obama Administration has consistently championed policies to ensure the Internet remains the greatest platform for free expression, innovation, and economic opportunity ever known. Yet just as the United States, our allies, and global Internet freedom advocates prepare to enact a long-term framework to protect the web from government intrusion, some in Congress are threatening to derail this effort.

Their claim that President Obama "is giving away the Internet," is a patently false and misleading distortion.

The United States was a critical contributor to the Internet’s development, but no single country, company, or organization owns it. While some of the first connections were established by U.S. government and military-backed research, the system was designed to be inherently open. Today, the Internet remains a decentralized network of connections owned, operated, and maintained by countless businesses worldwide, transcending all borders and uniting all people.

The erroneous claim that President Obama is “giving away the Internet” refers to a process our government started nearly 20 years ago to privatize management of the Domain Name System, or DNS. The DNS technical functions serve as a global address book of the Internet. Using domains like .com and .org, the DNS enables users to visit websites with memorable names instead of obscure numeric addresses. Without it, visiting a website like whitehouse.gov would require we type complex streams of numbers into our browsers.

During the 1990s, the U.S. government recognized the Internet’s incredible potential and determined that the private sector - not governments - was more suited to manage the technical evolution of the DNS. And so, the White House tasked the Commerce Department, through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), with carrying out a plan to privatize the DNS.

NTIA partnered with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – or ICANN – to ensure the DNS would be managed by Internet stakeholders representing private industry, civil society, academia, and the greater online community.

Under this “multistakeholder approach,” Internet stakeholders have driven DNS standards and policies, and the Internet has flourished worldwide. In today’s digital economy, consumers and businesses rely on a myriad of online products, applications, services, and content for a wide range of daily activities. Two decades ago, just one percent of the world was online. Today, 45 percent – over three billion people – are online. Another two billion will connect by 2020.

Throughout this phenomenal growth, our government’s stewardship role with respect to the DNS has remained largely clerical and symbolic. Yet the relationship has become a powerful symbol for authoritarian governments seeking more control over the Internet.

In recent years, Russia, China, and other nations that censor content and limit free expression have voiced support for putting the United Nations in charge, arguing that if the U.S. is so involved, every government should be involved.

We must not let that happen. Shifting control to the UN – or any intergovernmental body – would leave the Internet vulnerable to geopolitical disputes and endless bureaucratic delays. It would also chill innovation and impede the Internet’s expansion to billions of people worldwide.

In 2014, the Obama Administration put Russia and China’s march toward government micromanagement of the web on hold by announcing we would finally complete the privatization of the DNS promised in 1998.  We tasked stakeholders with creating a plan to transition our stewardship role, strengthen multistakeholder governance, protect the stability and security of the DNS, and maintain the openness of the Internet.

We now have such a proposal – one supported by major Internet freedom advocates like the Center for Technology and Democracy and Human Rights Watch, technology industry groups like the Internet Association, and business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They all support this transition because it ensures the Internet remains accountable to the people, businesses, and organizations that use it, run it, and depend on it worldwide. Through ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, government will be a voice at the table – but not the only voice. And certainly not a controlling voice.

The U.S. government has no statutory authority over ICANN. With the transition set to begin on Oct. 1, any effort by Congress to derail the privatization of the DNS would embolden those who seek greater government control.

Internet freedom is an economic and foreign policy priority for the United States. We envision a world where everyone has access to the Internet and the vast opportunities for communication, entrepreneurship, and empowerment it affords. The best way to ensure the continued expansion of a free, open, and truly global Internet is to entrust it not to governments but to the online community itself.

The deceptive claim that President Obama is “giving away the Internet” implies that this transition somehow weakens American power – when in truth, it makes us stronger.

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Last updated: 2016-09-14 10:37

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