There aren’t many things we can take for granted these days, but some things really feel as though they should be a given. A free and open Internet, for example.
Twenty years ago, it was still a novelty for many of us. But today it’s an essential part of how we live, work and play. Modern life without the freedom to find the information we need with relative ease is almost unimaginable.
But that freedom could be in jeopardy, thanks to governments in countries such as France, China, Brazil and Argentina.
To understand why, it’s important to know that the Internet freedom we enjoy comes in large part because of the fact that the United States oversees a body known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN runs the naming function of the Internet under a U.S. government contract with the Department of Commerce.
So far, so good. ICANN is the Internet administrator, so to speak, and the United States has been ensuring that it fully protects a free and open Internet.
But the U.S. announced last year that it wants to end its oversight role, provided it can ensure that the free Internet we all enjoy isn’t damaged in the transition.
So the United States insisted that ICANN work with the Internet community to create something — an accountability structure that would substitute for the oversight role currently performed by the Department of Commerce. ICANN has been working toward such a model ever since then, and even made some good progress.
But some governments — “a small, but vocal minority,” note experts Brett Schaefer and Paul Rosenzweig — are trying to take advantage of this transition process to assert more government control of the Internet. At an ICANN meeting in Paris this summer, they insisted that governments should have an “enhanced” role in running the Internet.
You don’t have to be an expert in Internet policy to know what happens when government has an “enhanced” role in anything. Quality declines, freedom erodes, and any information that isn’t stamped “approved” becomes hard to get.
Do you think the idea of government control is a bogeyman? Consider “right to be forgotten” rules. As regulation expert James Gattuso recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, they give European Union residents the right to request that Internet search engines remove links that appear in searches for their own names.
In June, France’s Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertes ordered Google to apply “right to be forgotten” globally. Google refused, but what if they are forced to comply? That would censor your Internet searches and impinge on your freedom. More importantly, it shows the kind of thing that happens when governments take a greater hand in controlling the Internet.
The United States, along with many other countries, has opposed the idea of changing the way ICANN currently does business and giving government a greater role. “But the possibility remains that the vocal minority of governments may force ICANN to seriously consider giving them enhanced authority over ICANN decisions and, by extension, in Internet governance,” writes Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Rosenzweig.
“That is a red line that must not be crossed,” they add. “The U.S. government should reject out of hand any transition proposal that grants governments more influence over ICANN than they currently possess.”
To ensure that this doesn’t happen, Congress needs to be involved. Some lawmakers realize this, which is why the House passed the Dotcom Act (currently pending in the Senate), which would require the Obama administration to give Congress 30 legislative days to review any proposal it approves on this matter before it is implemented.
U.S. leverage is crucial. However it’s accomplished, Congress needs to put itself in a position to reject a bad deal. The alternative — giving more authority to authoritarian countries that see the Internet as something to be controlled for government purposes — is unthinkable.
• Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).