Should oversight over the Internet naming conventions and top-level domains be relinquished to a group that just four years ago was in danger of being fired as a vendor due to its lack of accountability?
Some, like Michael Chertoff, say yes. He worries in Politico that, “If Washington fails to follow through on its longstanding commitment to privatize the DNS, it will fuel efforts by authoritarian regimes to move Internet governance to the United Nations — and potentially put the Internet, as we know it, at risk.”
Apparently Chertoff has not been keeping up to date on the latest happenings in the world of Internet governance, because if he had, he would have acknowledged the State Department’s concern that China has already developed its own Internet root zone and DNS system. For all intents and purposes, the Chinese government has chosen to put the tools in place to break the Internet any time its leaders choose. And I’m confident that Secretary Chertoff would agree that in today’s environment, the Chinese government is going to proceed according to its interests.
What’s more, he would know that China attempted to cut a deal with the holders of the top-level domain .XYZ which is the sixth largest in the world to exclude the use of 12,000 words in domain names in exchange for gaining access to their markets. This initial attempt by the Chinese to flex their market muscle to control content can only get worse and it provides little comfort to those of us with offensive words like www.getliberty.org for a domain name to lose the soft power of the United States as an offset to the Chinese.
However, what is most shocking about Chertoff’s piece is his failure to even mention that the architect of the transition of multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance under current U.S. vendor ICANN, Fade Chehade, no longer is leading the California based tax exempt non-profit, but on the eve of the transition has accepted a role as a senior, unpaid adviser to a Chinese government-led effort to counter ICANN.
This is the true elephant in the room.
In political terms it is as if the primary campaign manager for Hillary Clinton were to leave her campaign and sign up with Donald Trump’s general election effort bringing all the knowledge of the systemic weaknesses of the campaign organization to an opponent eager to exploit them.
No one in their right mind would be comfortable with that arrangement, yet that is exactly the situation facing an untested, vulnerable ICANN under a multi-stakeholder model suddenly freed from the protection of the U.S. government. A model that all the “experts” who worked on it assure is impenetrable, an assurance eerily similar to the one offered by those who built the Titanic before its maiden voyage proved otherwise.
Chertoff states in his almost puerile missive of vague warnings against a future United Nations control of the Internet that, “While authoritarian governments may be happy to see the U.S. relinquish its oversight role, privatizing the DNS is a much better way to guarantee broad support for the system among allies and the developing world for the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance.”
In a nutshell, the argument is that an unaccountable ICANN operating in an environment where the U.S. has the same say as Algeria, with the real power divested to companies like Google and others is more secure than the current situation where the United States can stare down anyone who seeks to impose speech restrictions on the web as China attempted recently.
Beyond the patent absurdity of the claim, it is equally absurd to assume that the United Nations won’t attempt to grab at a now ripe for the plucking Internet governance role. Why do they want it so badly? It would provide an independent funding source that the U.N. has always craved.
While politicians in D.C. often put out press releases opposing “taxing the Internet”, ICANN already taxes the Internet through its fee structure for effectively leasing top level domain names. Anyone who uses a .net address is already paying $1 to ICANN in a hidden pass-through fee for that privilege as an example.
Verisign reports that at the end of 2015, there were approximately 314 million domain name registrations and growing each quarter. It doesn’t take a math major to see the allure of controlling the money machine that creates these top-level domains and charges a fee for every one that is purchased.
ICANN revenue in 2015 was $219 million from these and other fees, and they have used some of this tax-free largesse to hire some of the most prestigious firms in the U.S. to lobby for full control of this system, free from having to worry about keeping their vendor contract with the U.S. And for the same reason that ICANN wants to control this money tree without real oversight, the nations who are a small part of ICANN’s multi-stakeholder structure will not be sated by the U.S. ceding control. Instead, it is guaranteed that they will seek to grab the pot of gold through a U.N. structure that would more directly benefit them, and increase their power.
Congress has wisely chosen to defund the Obama Administration’s effort to transfer oversight over Internet governance to its vendor over the past two years. Now they need to get behind the Cruz-Duffy Protecting Internet Freedom Act to extend the contract for another two years, providing more time to stress test the system, and measure the impact of Chehade’s seemingly switching sides in the debate. Notably, Senator Marco Rubio also recently circulated a letter also urging an extension garnering the signatures of many of his colleagues on the Senate Committee overseeing the issue.
One thing that the House Energy and Commerce Committee got right when discussing this issue is that there will be no going back from the transition. Given that, Congress needs to get it right, and for now, that means extend the contract and let the next Administration re-evaluate what Freedom of Information Act records show was President Obama’s hastily made decision.
The author is president of Americans for Limited Government