Many of those watching the pro-democracy demonstrations underway right now in Hong Kong are concerned, appropriately, about the impact they will have on the global march of human freedom.
That we can see the demonstrations at all has a lot to do with the Internet, itself a tool that global pro-democracy movements have successfully used to make the entire world sit up and take notice of what they are trying to accomplish. Authoritarian leaders like China’s Xi Jinping therefore have an unsurprisingly cautious attitude toward the World Wide Web; they understand its open nature and the free flow of words and video pose a very real and constant threat to their power.
That openness is a direct result of the influence of core American values on Internet governance. The Internet was invented by the United States government, which has turned the management of many of its essential functions over to a California-based nonprofit corporation created for that specific purpose called ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Up to now the U.S. connection has insured the values enshrined in the U.S. Constitution shapes the way it operates.
That may soon change, thanks to a decision by the Obama administration to turn over the U.S. government’s remaining authority over the Net to the corporation – which will then act as an independent body governed by the will of, as ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade repeatedly tells U.S. audiences, its stakeholders rather than by governments or international, intergovernmental bodies like the U.N.-based International Telecommunications Union. There’s plenty of evidence, however, he’s being less than truthful about his intentions.
A proposal that was recently brought up for discussion – and is sure to top the agenda at the ICANN meeting that begins Monday in Los Angeles – would give its Governmental Advisory Committee (official representatives of the different governments around the world) a mechanism by which any policy the GAC proposed would be adopted unless two-thirds of the board of directors voted to reject it. At the same time, it would allow the GAC to propose policy supported by a simple majority instead of through unanimous agreement, as is currently the case.
Where the interests of freedom and openness are concerned, these changes create unacceptably low thresholds. Authoritarian states out-number the democracies – and even some of the democracies (like Turkey) are pro-Internet censorship when it suits them. These new thresholds mean that Chehade is laying the groundwork for other governments to take over the writing of the rules that govern the operations of the Internet.
It’s a deal with the devil allowing incremental increases in state control in exchange for shorter and shorter periods of relative peace and quiet within ICANN.
We are at a time for choosing how the Internet will look for the foreseeable future: will it be a democracy, with all the lumps, warts, and mess that true democracy entails? Or will it be a “managed democracy” hiding behind the façade of public participation while in fact being run behind the scenes by repressive governments?
Is what China is trying to do to Hong Kong, in violation of the agreements it made before this former British colony was turned back over to Chinese rule, a precursor to what it may do with the Internet if the United States is allowed to relinquish its role as the ultimate safeguard of its openness? Is Chehade trying to create a “managed democracy” – where the stakeholders are free to choose their direction as long as governments have chosen them first?
ICANN wants unrestricted authority over the core functions of the Internet, and the Obama Administration has said it plans to transfer that authority. Those who value the Net for its freedom and openness cannot allow this to happen. As it stands under the Obama plan for the Internet’s future, ICANN will either become a despotic organization or become the willing agent of despotic governments who want to censor content on the Internet.
Cosmetic nods in the direction of “accountability” are not what the situation calls for. Only real, structural reform that makes ICANN the kind of democratic, bottom-up organization it was always supposed to be and that Chehade says he wants will suffice. What is needed is a genuine focus on stewardship and governance, not a narrow approach but a true transformation.
Peter Roff is a former senior writer for United Press International who is currently a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom, an organization that advocates for technology freedom.