As Expected, Authoritarian Governments Line Up to Control the Internet

The Obama Administration’s decision to relinquish American oversight of Internet domains looks worse and worse with every new development.  At this point, the burden of argument is no longer on critics.  

Supporters of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers handover need to explain exactly why we’re thinking about doing this.  There was never much of a rational argument beyond “because it’s time to hand the Internet over to the ‘world community,'” plus the officially unstated but widely assumed “because the world is angry at the United States over the NSA spying scandals.”  The former is not sufficient to overcome the problems with this move; the latter is based on some remarkably naive wishful thinking that the international community will think better of America after we surrender ICANN oversight. 

The Wall Street Journal reports on the first conference on Internet governance to be held since the surprise announcement of domain authority handover in March.  It went pretty much as critics feared it would, with authoritarian regimes lining up to assert control over the Internet.  Everyone ignored the State Department’s urgings not to discuss “the reach or limitations of state sovereignty in Internet policy.”

[Brazil’s] leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, opened the conference by declaring: “The participation of governments should occur with equality so that no country has more weight than others.” The Russian representative objected to “the control of one government,” calling for the United Nations to decide “international norms and other standards on Internet governance.” Last week Vladimir Putin called the Internet a “CIA project” and said “we must purposefully fight for our interests.”

Authoritarian regimes want to control the Internet to preserve their power. “National sovereignty should rule Internet policy and governance,” the Chinese representative said. “Each government should build its own infrastructure, undertake its own governance and enforce its own laws.” The Saudi Arabian delegate said: “International public policy in regard to the Internet is the right of governments and that public policy should be developed by all governments on an equal footing.”

Even nominal supporters of the existing multi-stakeholder model embraced the end of Internet self-governance. The delegate from India declared a greater role for the world’s governments “an imperative that can’t be ignored.” Neelie Kroes of the European Commission said: “The Internet is now a global resource demanding global governance.”

Philip Corwin, a U.S. lawyer who represents Internet companies, noted that 27 of the first 30 speakers at NetMundial were from governments or U.N. agencies–at a “meeting supposedly conceived to strengthen the private-sector-led multi-stakeholder, consensus-based policy-making model.”

We’ve heard constant promises that the as-yet nonexistent international body that will take over ICANN will not be dominated by these authoritarian governments, but they certainly seem to think they’ll be running the show.  As I’ve noted since March, many of the ostensibly “private” parties involved in the “multi-stakeholder” model are actually extensions of their all-powerful governments.  And the rest of the world simply does not have the same understanding of free expression that the America of 2014 does… which is saying something, because America 2014 Edition doesn’t have the same understanding of free expression that America 1984 Edition did.

The Journal’s conclusion is absolutely correct: “President Obama should revoke the plan to abandon the open Internet.  The ugly spectacle of countries jockeying to control the Internet is a timely reminder of why the U.S. should never give them the chance.”