Analysis & Opinions - Politico

How to keep the Internet free and open

| June 7, 2016

The U.S. has long held a minimal oversight role over the Internet. It's time for that to end.

In the upcoming months, the U.S. government faces a critical decision: Should it relinquish its limited oversight role over a critical component of the Internet?

The decision concerns the Internet’s Domain Name System — the system that allows users to reach sites ending in .com, .org., .uk, .bank and many other designations. For nearly two decades, the U.S. has helped oversee this crucial component of the global Internet. And for many years, Washington has been committed ultimately to fully privatizing the system, withdrawing the oversight role of the Commerce Department, and leaving it in the hands of a private California-based organization. But now, there are some who want to abandon that plan and keep the government involved.

Opponents of the current plan to eliminate the U.S. government’s oversight role have argued that federal supervision is needed to protect the freedom of the Internet and that the transition to privatization is a national security risk. But these arguments are misplaced. If Washington fails to follow through on its longstanding commitment to privatize the DNS, it will fuel efforts by authoritarian regimes to move Internet governance to the United Nations—and potentially put the Internet, as we know it, at risk.

The Internet is vital to the international economy and global security for its openness, speed, flexibility and efficiency. It enables international communication, the free flow of ideas and innovation, and global commerce. Not surprisingly, authoritarian regimes, which often want to limit the ability of their citizens to communicate, don’t like these attributes. Keeping the Internet free and open should be of utmost importance to the U.S. government.

The DNS lies at the intersection of these competing visions. The DNS is what keeps the Internet singular, unified and global. If the Internet is an “information superhighway,” the manager of the DNS enables users to navigate it. ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has ably performed this function for nearly two decades. It is a California-based nonprofit public benefit corporation, created in 1998 during the Clinton administration, whose mission is to make certain that the Internet’s naming and addressing system is globally coordinated, secure and stable. In 1998, the U.S. government recognized that, as the commercial use of the Internet expanded globally, governance would also need to evolve, and that stewardship of Internet resources would be better served by an inclusive and global multi-stakeholder model.

Since ICANN’s inception, the Department of Commerce has held a limited oversight role over the organization. The agency’s stewardship has greatly diminished as the organization has matured from a small operation on a shoestring budget to a large, professional corporation with more than 350 employees in seven offices around the globe. Global stakeholders, including U.S. businesses, end users, technical experts, public interest organizations and academics, oversee ICANN.

In 2014, the U.S. government asked ICANN to convene this global Internet community to develop a proposal to make ICANN truly independent, and end the U.S. government’s continuing oversight role. The resulting proposal, presented to the government on March 10, does what the U.S. had always planned: It completes the privatization of the DNS. The proposal would give oversight authority to those groups that represent the rich diversity of the Internet itself: business leaders, Internet engineers, academics, civil society, governments, end users and many others. This multi-stakeholder model works and the transition should be nothing more than the final step in an 18-year process. The Obama administration must now decide by Sept. 30 whether to go ahead with the new proposal and complete the privatization. We strongly believe this is the right thing to do.

Opponents of the transition argue that the U.S. government should maintain its control over ICANN to prevent bad actors from taking over the Internet. Lawmakers have tried to delay or block the transition multiple times through the appropriations process and standalone legislation. For example, some senators are currently floating legislation that would effectively delay the transition indefinitely. But their arguments are exactly backward and would have the opposite effect of what they intend.

The DNS is a globally agreed-upon address book for the Internet, originally created by the U.S., that any nation, network or user can exit from at any time. No country or international organization can force the U.S. to give up its oversight role. But they can simply abandon the U.S.-created DNS, potentially creating an alternative DNS housed at the United Nations or even within their own country. Such a change would mean the loss of the very element that has made the Internet a single, globally interoperable system strengthening the global economy, including that of the U.S., by creating jobs, encouraging innovation and stimulating the economic growth critical to global stability and security.

Without the private, multi-stakeholder model, other nations’ proposals to move to a new DNS, operated by foreign governments on a multilateral, regional or national basis could gain traction. The U.S. government would be powerless to compel anyone to use the Commerce-administered DNS. In the end, nongovernmental stakeholders, like businesses and every day Internet users, would no longer have a say in the management of the DNS. Decision-making authority over significant Internet policy issues, such as freedom of expression and cyber security would move to a multilateral forum like the U.N. as well. Abandoning the multi-stakeholder model would undermine the enormous economic and social benefits of the free, open global Internet. In short, if the U.S. refuses to turn over its legacy, ministerial oversight of ICANN to the private sector, the private sector may end up with no voice in global Internet governance.

If the U.S. relinquishes its exclusive oversight role, other governments will no longer be able to insist on also having an oversight role at an institution like the U.N. because they will have an equal role as members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee. While this may not convince authoritarian regimes, our allies and the developing world are much more likely to stay with the ICANN-administered DNS because the global multi-stakeholder model does a better job of ensuring the continued success of the Internet than one managed by governments.

While authoritarian governments may be happy to see the U.S. relinquish its oversight role, privatizing the DNS is a much better way to guarantee broad support for the system among allies and the developing world for the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance. The proposal developed by the global Internet community recognizes that the Internet is not something appropriately controlled by governments or any other single stakeholder. Instead, the business community, the community of Internet users, the technical experts responsible for continuing development and innovation, and thoughtful academics all bring essential abilities and perspectives to the management of the Internet’s global address book and other key functions.

This is why we see diverse support for the promised ICANN transition from diverse groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Human Rights Watch, companies like Microsoft and Intel, and free speech advocates like the Center for Democracy & Technology. It’s why the House and Senate announced its unanimous support for the multi-stakeholder model in its Resolution of 2012.

To reject or even delay the transition would be a gift to those governments threatened by a free and open Internet. The multi-stakeholder model is exactly what has allowed policy to keep pace with the Internet’s rapid growth. The proposal includes all voices and is built on a foundation of transparency and accountability. It is a quintessentially American policy.

When our values of freedom and democracy spread around the world and are shared by others, we are more secure at home and the world is more stable. We support this stewardship transition, as it will pave the way for American values and the free and open Internet around the world.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Chertoff, Michael and General James Cartwright.“How to keep the Internet free and open.” Politico, June 7, 2016.

The Authors

Michael Chertoff