- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2011


Freedom of information and communication on the Internet is playing a key role in supporting pro-democracy demonstrators in the Middle East and developing norms for civil society elsewhere around the world. But just when freedom is beginning to flicker, the Obama administration is seeking to give authoritarian regimes more power to impose censorship on the Web.

The issue has been swirling around a small nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN was established in 1998 under an agreement with the Commerce Department to move domain-name system management from the government to the private sector. At the time, fewer than 150 million people were using the Internet. Now there are around 2 billion users in every corner of the world. For some oppressed people, the Internet has brought unimagined opportunities for freedom of thought and expression. And as the influence of the Internet has grown, ICANN has come under increasing scrutiny for foreign governments seeking more control over the system.

Proposals for international governance of the Internet have been particularly popular with authoritarian regimes and countries - particularly in the Middle East - where freedom is not a core value. The Bush administration time and again rebuffed these power-sharing proposals. However, the Obama administration, consistent with its view that the United States has too much influence in the world, has sought to give foreign countries their say.

In October 2009, the Obama administration concluded an agreement with ICANN that increased international input on Internet governance. ICANN now has a foreign advisory board representing 100 countries, and the Obama administration is pushing for them to have veto power over the introduction of new top-level domains to which they may object. “If foreign governments do not trust the Internet governance systems,” Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Lawrence Strickling explains, “they will threaten to balkanize the Domain Name System, which will jeopardize the worldwide reach of the Internet.” The notion at work here is that if the regimes that censor, bully and block the Internet simply have a place at the table, they will be more likely to behave.

O Force propaganda aside, the central issue is not trust but control. Giving more power to leading Internet censors like China, Iran or Saudi Arabia won’t build confidence, it will simply allow these countries to be more creative in finding ways to shut down dissent and control information at much higher levels. The Obama administration’s internationalist approach to Internet governance is a direct expression of the president’s general belief that the United States is too large, too powerful and has too much influence on world affairs - but moves toward internationalizing Internet governance will introduce countless new problems for free communication, commerce and cybersecurity.

Kowtowing to countries that see freedom as a threat and cyberspace as a battlespace will only further erode America’s global position. Maybe that is the White House objective.

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