With a single swipe of the pen, the Obama administration has made one of the most unforgivable mistakes of its two terms in office.
The U.S. Department of Commerce made a startling yet easily overlooked announcement: it relinquished the control of a certain non-profit organization called ICANN. This acronym, which might not mean much for most, denotes the principal regulator of the Internet, in charge of assigning and maintaining domain names and Web addresses.
ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is the sole organism that is able to assign online “addresses” for users from around the world, making sure that they are used only once. In addition, it manages the allocation of top-level domains, those suffixes we all use like .com, .org or .net.
But the real teeth of ICANN come from its ability to oversee the "root zone file," a register of all names and addresses for websites from around the world.
Offloading ICANN is single-handedly the most serious threat to the freedom of the Internet as we know it, essentially opening up the possibility of countries such as China, Russia or Turkey to become active stakeholders in ensuring the oversight of the web. Controlling the “root zone file” entails real regulatory power and it is not far fetched that less democratic countries could see that the websites of dissident groups or political opponents would get shut down.
Whereas the U.S. has used a very light touch when it came to regulating the Web, others will not be so kind.
Virtually all non-Western countries that have seen democratic uprisings in recent years have resorted to censorship. Turkey is the most recent example, whose government decided to ban Twitter and YouTube in order to shield its corrupt officials from public scrutiny. In the moments leading up to Russia’s invasion of Crimea, news outlets were blacklisted, journalists were intimidated and protesters were quashed. Not to mention the infamous Great Firewall set up by the Chinese, which blacklists large areas of the Internet.
In this Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, file photo, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a news briefing in a ceremony for signing agreements between Iranian and Turkish officials in Tehran, Iran. Turkey restricted access to Twitter on Friday, March 21, 2014, hours after Erdogan threatened to “root out” the social media network where wiretapped recordings have been leaked, damaging the government’s reputation ahead key local elections this month. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)
The consequences are dire. Once the U.S. no longer occupies the main seat at the table, new rules can be drafted. Powers that were once outside the scope of ICANN could very well be integrated into its mandate. Authoritarian leaders from across the world will lounge at this power vacuum and seek to model the Internet to their liking.
As we have seen in recent years, the world isn’t evolving on a steady course towards more peace, democracy and respect for human rights. Passive threats to our national security have flared up across the Middle East, Asia and even Europe, highlighting that deep Cold War divisions were only dormant and far from extinguished. In this context, it is pure folly to give up control over the most essential tool of free speech.
So why has this happened? It looks more and more likely that this is part of a politically expedient move on behalf of the Obama administration to outsource the NSA.
If, up till now, we have used the swathe of security agencies to monitor the flow of data across the world, targeting suspicious individuals in the ongoing war on terror, offloading ICANN could mean that other entities will do that job for us. How? Through the balkanization of the Internet, breaking the Web down in multiple individual networks that can only be accessed by these networks’ "members."
What better way to kill free speech than by destroying the universal access of individuals to the medium that carries it? If pesky dissidents could only be visible on a small part of the Internet, preferably one that isn’t easily accessible by most, their messages would be severely weakened. Whistleblowers like Snowden or Assange would find it increasingly hard to get their message across.
Like many Americans of all political stripes, I don’t particularly like the idea of the government administering the Internet with its current degree of oversight. However, while an Internet not governed by a state actor is a good idea, an Internet that invites the participation of other states as the U.S. backs down in the word is a phenomenal lapse in judgment. Let’s hope it’s not too late to reverse course.
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