by Horace Cooper     •    Politix

Internet GovernanceLast spring the White House announced that it would go forward with an effort to relinquish all American oversight over the operation of the World Wide Web. At the time many critics within the tech community warned that this precipitous decision would have harmful effects – here at home and abroad.

The administration claims that this process is the natural evolution of America’s role in setting up and overseeing the web. But critics predicted that the risks of ending American management of the web’s operation would result in a dramatic change in the operation and accessibility of the Internet.

As the date for this transfer gets closer it is becoming increasingly clear that the critics were right to be alarmed.

ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which by an act of Congress has the primary responsibility for ensuring web stability and uniformity is turning out to be the perhaps the greatest threat to the stability and uniformity of the world wide web.

For over 15 years the federal government’s limits on ICANN have ensured that it promoted the best interests of the web and the world’s users. Operating under U.S. laws and under the limits of the U.S. Constitution, Americans – and indeed the world’s citizens – have benefited from a predictable and reliable World Wide Web experience.

However, once the chords between Washington and ICANN’s are cut, unless we act careful, we’ll also sever many of the benefits of the web that we’ve come to expect. ICANN says we shouldn’t worry – that there wouldn’t be any difference in the operation of the World Wide Web after they become autonomous.

But that isn’t true. For instance, there would be nothing to prevent ICANN from relocating outside of the jurisdiction of America’s legal system. Even the simplest legal disputes involving internet governance could be transformed if ICANN were to “move” to Turkey, Qatar, or even Russia.

Also once the U.S.’s predominate role is ended, what’s to stop other countries – those with far less sympathies for free thought, association, and information-sharing – from becoming more influential in the operations of ICANN?

There are many nations that desire to place broad limits on citizen access to the Internet. Presently the internet-averse countries operate by placing significant restrictions on the ISP’s (Internet Service Providers). However, those restrictions have some limitations. Imagine a world where these countries could dictate directly to ICANN. They could place limits not just on what their own citizens have access to, but they also could restrict the access of the entire world.

While ICANN and its supporters say that such claims are just fear mongering, its recent discussions about changes to its bylaws for the post-transition are not reassuring.

They’ve put forward a proposal that dramatically changes the role of international governments – one that would shift web governance from America’s pro-individual rights perspective to a pro-regime based one.

This isn’t just dangerous, it strikes to the heart of whether the World Wide Web – which America created and has made available to the world – will continue to be the most innovative information resource ever invented or if it will become a tool of authoritarian regimes and with access limited to a privileged few.

And in a bizarre move that foreshadows far more divergence from the consensus-based governing system that the U.S. oversight ensured, ICANN has announced this summer that it will be the final decision-maker for any and all “accountability” measures that it will operate under. In others, the fox plans to be responsible for regulating its access to the henhouse.

Instead of giving America and the world the assurance that this transition will be seamless and imperceptible, exactly the opposite is occurring.

But it’s not too late. The transfer hasn’t happened and America and the rest of the worlds’ stakeholders have some options. One really exciting development has been the release of the “Key Principles for Coordination of Internet Unique Identifiers.”

Created by a diverse group of internet users and developers, the principles provide the kind of direction and accountability necessary to ensure a vibrant and accessible World Wide Web. They define the authority and accountability of ICANN and its stakeholders, ensure an appropriate separation of functions – policy-making, dispute resolution with defined rights and responsibilities and finally clarify the importance of ICANN operating free of special interest or rogue regime influence.

Like the U.S. Constitution, by separating power and dividing responsibilities, the “Key Principles” are critical to guaranteeing that regardless of the oversight mechanisms of ICANN, all users of the World Wide Web (across the globe) will continue to enjoy access and its rules and operations will continue to operate in the consensus based manner that we’ve all come to appreciate.

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Horace Cooper is a legal commentator and an adjunct fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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