Repressive governments want more control over the Internet — and Obama’s granting it

The Obama administration quietly announced Friday that the organization that controls the Internet will begin to cede that oversight, which means that some of the world’s most repressive political regimes are finally getting a step closer to a long-held goal: controlling the Internet.

For years China, Russia and Iran, along with several other countries, have wanted to get their hands on the Internet, which is currently run by Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names, or ICANN. The California-based nonprofit organization was established in 1998 to manage the assignment of domain names and other functions. It essentially oversees the Internet’s unique identifiers.

Prior to ICANN’s creation the U.S. government oversaw the creation of domain names and Internet governance.

ICANN is supposed to operate largely independently under the oversight of the Commerce Department, but some countries have maintained that the U.S. effectively controlled the Internet. Certainly the U.S. government had an important say in Internet governance, but it did not control it. Since many of those critic countries have a long history of the government controlling supposedly independent enterprises, their confusion is understandable.

To be fair, it was always part of the plan that ICANN oversight would eventually shift to a broad coalition of stakeholders. And a number of companies that operate in the Internet space see this as a positive step. But it’s an open question as who the stakeholders will be.

In their effort to push a takeover of the Internet, several governments got the United Nations involved, which set up an international meeting in 2005 to consider a new governance model. Those efforts raised red flags among those who support a free and open Internet about its long-term future.

To appease the concerns, the Obama administration’s announcement stipulated that the transition of power would have to meet several established principles, including openness of the Internet. Would that be like Obama’s “red line” to Syria’s use of chemical weapons?

What would these countries do if they get more control? Well, some have proposed imposing a tax on Internet usage. And many of them want more control over who can use the Internet, what they can say and for what purposes.

We’ve seen the Chinese go to extensive efforts to track and stop the free flow of information, Iran try to cut off the use of social media and the Internet by government protesters, and Russia invade a neighbor that is undergoing political upheaval. And when the UN tries to speak out against such repressive actions — that is, IF the UN can muster the gumption to speak out against them — it is completely feckless and always ignored.

That’s why you need to worry about this change.

At a 2012 Institute for Policy Innovation — the think tank I am associated with — lunch featuring then Commissioner Robert McDowell of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), McDowell pointed out that there were a lot of silly conspiracy theories about groups controlling the Internet, but that the effort by several repressive governments and the UN was a real threat.

In short, there is no model for major governments to become an effective body for governing the Internet — at least not yet. And there can’t be as long as repressive, totalitarian regimes have a major say in Internet governance. But “governing” isn’t really their goal; it’s control.


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