The United States invented the internet, and a Los Angeles-based non-profit group called ICANN has managed the internet's essential functioning within the United States. Last Friday the US Commerce Department announced that it is now transitioning the function to the "global internet community."
This system has worked well, allowing for a diversity of voices to be represented and has led to incredible economic growth. Other countries across the globe have joined the world wide web in droves, essentially all of them except for North Korea. The United States pioneered freedom of speech through our First Amendment, and that bedrock of freedom in the United States is a core principle underscoring internet freedom: anyone should be able to access any website, anywhere in the world, without restriction. These concepts are pretty popular, as could be seen in the mass protest against SOPA/PIPA in 2012, where over 8 million people reached out to their member of Congress demanding that they support internet freedom against proposed censorship.
Internet freedom is perhaps the greatest export of the United States in the 21st century and is the great democratizer: breaking down trade barriers across the world, allowing instant communication around the world, empowering dissidents against totalitarian regimes in Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Iran, and allowing for businesses to launch in the United States and expand across the globe (Google, Twitter and Facebook etc.). With the world wide web just passing its 25th anniversary, we are continuing to see substantial growth in speed, access, and new uses for the internet across the globe. Modern economies have to be connected to the internet to compete, but connecting to the internet allows for the forces of modernity, liberalism and democratization to infect even the most repressed populations around the world, and then it allows them to organize and mobilize - which is precisely why authoritarian regimes hate American control of the internet so much as we demand an open internet at the ICANN level.
The recent news by the Commerce Department that the US will be abandoning its role as a steward of ICANN to the United Nation's International Telecommunication Union, threatens the internet freedom that has led to the world wide web.
Other countries around the world have very different conceptions of freedom of speech and censorship than the United States does, which is why it's so critical that ICANN be kept under US stewardship. By giving up control of ICANN, we allow countries around the world to manage the essential functioning of the internet. And it's a one-way street, as a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), Daniel Castro wrote, "If the Obama Administration gives away its oversight of the Internet ... it will be gone forever." A close examination of how other countries feel about internet censorship should make us very worried about their ability to now define world internet policy.
To provide perspective on how bad international control of the internet is, consider how the United Nations manages international human rights issues. An international United Nations Human Rights Council sounds great in principle, but not when its members include China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Vietnam and Algeria, all in the United Nation's the 2016 group, all nations listed as "Not Free" according to Freedom House an NGO that tracks democracy, political freedom and human rights. We should fear that international control of the internet could devolve into something very similar. Do we honestly want "stake-holders" from China, Russia, Iran and even North Korea to be defining how the internet works, what websites should be allowed to be online, taken down or made available to other countries, how web traffic should flow, or whether there should be a global tax placed on internet access?
China, the largest country by population and third largest by area and member of the United Nations Security Council, censors political dissent, discussion boards and social media. Censorship in China is among the most stringent in the world. They block access to many foreign websites including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, and discussions on Tibetan independence, police brutality and the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989.
Russia, the largest country in the world by area, 9th largest by population and member of the United Nations Security Council, recently blocked three major opposition news websites and blogs in the wake of their invasion of Crimea, and blocked a social media group with over 500,000 members for being against the invasion of Ukraine.
India, the second largest country in the world by population, and 7th largest by land mass, had the largest decline in internet from in 2013. Google and Facebook were ordered to block apparently faked imaged of Muslims suffering violent attacks and the government disabled the Twitter handles of journalists who used their accounts to report on unrest. One woman, Shaheen Dhada, was arrested in November, 2012, for using Facebook to criticize the government, "People like Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a bandh [strike] for that." She was criticizing Mumbai being shut down in the name of a politician that many considered to be corrupt. . . but apparently this was beyond the pale. After Shaheen was taken to jail she later said she will "never post on Facebook again [and] I would like to apologise. He. . . was a great man."
Iran, 18th largest country by land area, 17th largest by population, blocks social media sites, political, social and religious content. Iranian ISP's have a centralized system for internet filtering to go after political blogs, women's rights magazines, and religious content they disagree with. The Iranian government has temporarily blocked Youtube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook off and on.Other countries, Burma, Sudan, UAE, Belarus, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Syria and Cuba are rated as "not free" in Freedom House's analysis of Internet control.
In particular, much of the Middle East has very different conceptions on what type of speech should be allowed, as can be seen from their efforts at the United Nations to legislate international restrictions on free speech specifically in references to the publication of Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. In 2013, Egypt and Pakistan banned Youtube completely for broadcasting the controversial 13-minute film "Innocence of Muslims." Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has hinted that he may implement a ban on Facebook and Youtube after the election on March 30.
How could we allow a global system premised on a free internet to be controlled, by nations that do not believe in a free internet for their country? If these censorship regimes want to create a clean internet of their own that bans content they disagree with, then they are free to do so - and Iran has already announced plans to do so - but the United States should not be complicit in giving them the keys to the kingdom.
While in the short term, it's likely that ICANN will remain true to its historical role, but in the longer term, without firm United States insistence, the not-free nations of the world will be in a position to influence what the internet looks like, what type of content should be censored globally, and whether to assess a global tax. In America we often take Freedom of Speech for granted, but our conception of Freedom of Speech, the conception that underlines how the internet itself is regulated, is in fact a minority perspective.
But perhaps it is the taxation angle that is the most dangerous, because once the international community recognizes that it can tax registration of new domain names through ICANN, that revenue source will create a major incentive for developing nations to impose taxation on the developed world that is registering the majority of the domain names.
The fundamental problem with international control of the internet is that the bad guys get a vote too. Some argue that it was inevitable for ICANN to transition to global control and that that transition was hastened by United States actions with NSA spying revelations - this may be true. But regardless it is now more incumbent than ever that the United States ensure that ICANN respect principles of internet freedom.
Derek Khanna was listed in the Forbes 30 Under 30 for Law and Policy for 2014. He is a Yale Law Fellow, columnist and policy expert. He wrote the House Republican Study Committee Memo on reforming copyright law and spearheaded the campaign on cellphone unlocking. Follow him on Twitter.