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Don’t Go Soft on the ICANN Handoff

Congress is wrong to take itself out of the game.internet-censorship-ICANN

by Peter Roff     •    US News & World Report

If, as CQ.com reported Thursday, GOP congressional leaders are suddenly going soft on the issue of the Obama administration’s intention to hand off the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, then someone has gone soft in the head.

The pending transfer, something the administration last year said it would like to see concluded by the end of this year, involves not just the critical operations of the Internet’s technical infrastructure but the values that govern its operations down to the level of the individual user. There is too much at stake to rush the transfer through.

For some time now, the plan has been to turn the responsibility for the Internet over to the world. American ingenuity developed it, American capital resources built it up and out, and American generosity made it possible for every country on Earth to take part in the revolution it spawned, even those countries that have sworn vengeance, jihad, destruction and similar ill-wishes on this, the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” 

Moving the IANA function from the domain of the U.S. government to ICANN itself is a speculative and risky proposition because, and this is especially true of its behavior under current CEO Fadi Chehade’s leadership, corporation officials seem willing to say anything they must to anyone they need in order to get what they want.

Under ICANN’s current organizational model, there is little to prevent it from relocating its headquarters to a place where U.S. federal and state laws, including the U.S. Constitution, are no longer the controlling legal authority over its operations. Without some remaining link to the U.S. government as a guarantor of good behavior, there must be specific, durable organizational reforms implemented to ensure that ICANN acts at the behest of its stakeholders and is responsible to them. Its structure must be reformed to ensure that governments hostile to the United States do not form a bloc to control the way the net operates and to prevent ICANN from eventually being subsumed into the International Telecommunication Union or some other larger international body or subsidiary of the United Nations.

ICANN also must be prevented from continuing to function, as it now does, as a top-down dicta-mocracy that could aggrandize itself into a global regulator, issuing taxes and fees, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in income through the issuing of domain name extensions without any regard as to what is done with the money, and essentially holding the world and the e-commerce sector hostage to its demands – all of which would be bad for world freedom, the U.S. economy, and each and every one of us who use it.

Some members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee – including some surprising Republicans who have heretofore been strong on the issue – seem to have missed all this. The legislation now moving through the committee, The DOTCOM Act (H.R. 805) fails to secure badly needed safeguards that will keep the Internet functional and democratic.

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Peter Roff is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report. Formerly a senior political writer for United Press International, he’s now affiliated with several public policy organizations, including Let Freedom Ring and Frontiers of Freedom. His writing has appeared in National Review, Fox News’ opinion section, The Daily Caller, Politico and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

Frontiers of Freedom (where I am a senior fellow) has from the outset opposed the transfer of the IANA function unless ICANN undergoes a serious structural transformation; it has made some practical suggestions that should be considered by anyone interested in the issue of Internet governance:

  1. The continued U.S. government operation of the .mil and .gov top-level domains must be guaranteed. Otherwise the U.S. risks losing control over the domain names undergirding America’s military and governmental operations;
  2. Changes guaranteeing the ultimate authority of ICANN’s multi-stakeholder community over the organization and its board of directors must be agreed to and in place before the IANA transfer is completed;
  3. ICANN’s policy development, policy implementation and dispute resolution functions must be separated to prevent any aggregations of power;
  4. The scope of ICANN’s activities, and its ability (or that of any successor or subsidiary organization) to fund itself, must be limited; and,
  5. Enforceable changes must be made to ICANN’s by-laws before the transfer is allowed to go forward that protect it in perpetuity from capture by any one government or group of government sector stakeholders.

The adoption of these five points, broadly speaking and construed, would do much to instill confidence in the global community that the values governing the Internet’s operations today will be the values that govern it in perpetuity. If these organizational objectives are reached, they are strong enough that the U.S. can have confidence in the transition going forward. Congress is therefore wrong to take itself out of the game at this critical junction, which is what the agreement reportedly reached by Reps. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and Democrat Frank Pallone, D-N.J., would do.

There will likely not be another opportunity to address this issue so it’s important that it be done right. The American people who contributed the ingenuity and capital that built the Internet deserve a voice in its continued operation. They are depending on Congress to ensure their voice is not silenced by greed, international intrigue, or by nations and leaders that would rule the world through anti-democratic means. If these safeguards are not secured in advance, then the very things Shimkus and others indicated they feared in the CQ piece actually become much more likely to occur, if not immediately then in the not-too-distant future.