03.26.2014 0

Bill Clinton and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales question international takeover of Internet

Clinton_ICANNBy Robert Romano

“Whatever you think our country’s done wrong, the United States has been by far the country most committed to keeping the Internet free and open and uninterrupted, and a lot of these people who say they want multistakeholder control over domain names and Internet access, what they really do, is want the ability to shut down inconvenient exchanges within their own countries.”

That was former President Bill Clinton leading a panel discussion on March 21 at the Clinton Global Initiative at Arizona State University, making the case against the U.S. shifting regulatory authority over Internet Protocol (IP) addresses — the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) — and the domain name system (DNS) to some as of yet unnamed international body.

He’s right.

This critical authority governs the functions that link numerical IP addresses to easy-to-remember domain names and guarantee that when you type in a domain name, you’re not getting some fraudulent site or getting blocked.

The Commerce Department announced on March 14 its intent to transition that authority overseas after some 45 years of federal control first via the Defense Department’s ARPANET and then the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET before the contracting of the IANA to the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in 1998.

Clinton was responding to claims that, in light of the National Security Agency (NSA) mass surveillance scandal, the U.S. should cease carrying out the IP address and DNS functions in favor of some sort “multistakeholder” approach composed of governments overseas, private Internet foundations, and other interested parties.

Not so fast, says Clinton, who warned, “A lot of these so-called multistakeholders are really governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet.”

Joining Clinton on the panel was Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and Internet freedom advocate, who Clinton asked, “Are you worried, Jimmy, that if we give up this domain jurisdiction that we’ve had for all these years that we’ll lose Internet freedom?”

Wales responded, “Yeah, I’m very worried about it,” noting that the U.S. Constitution serves as a firewall against censorship by ICANN as a contractor of the Commerce Department.

JimmyWales“There is the First Amendment in the U.S., and there is a culture around free expression, and that’s so strong, that it’s really important,” Wales said.

He’s right. Should anything go awry under the current Commerce-ICANN relationship vis a vis censorship, right now there is a recourse in federal court. That is a really important point to make in this discussion.

Wales declared support for keeping the Internet free and open, despite whatever oppressive governments overseas may want to do with it, explaining, “I’m on a high level panel at ICANN discussing this issue and one of the things that really concerns me is some of the other people on the panel when they talk about, you know, it’s important that we have respect for local cultures.”

He continued, “Okay, I respect local cultures, but I’m not sure if that means, I think you, the head of the telecomm regulation unit in a particular country, should be banning parts of Wikipedia. That’s not local cultural variation that we should embrace and accept, that’s a human rights violation.”

Right now, that’s something neither ICANN nor the Commerce Department can do — because in the U.S. it is clearly against the First Amendment.

Yet, if the Commerce Department transitions the IP address and DNS authorities — without any vote in Congress — to an international agency, like the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU), or a series of private Internet foundations like ICANN and the Internet Society, these essential First Amendment guarantees will go away.

And we won’t get them back. Then, the incidences of censorship Wales warns against could rise not only overseas, but also become prevalent even here in the U.S., breaking with the Internet’s early tradition of embracing the freedom of expression.

Although both Clinton and Wales expressed nominal support for the multistakeholder approach in principle, they expressed grave doubts about how it would look in reality.

As Clinton noted, “We’ve kept the Internet free and open and it’s a great tribute to the United States that we have done that, including the ability to bash the living daylights out of those of us that are in office or have been — we’ve done that.”

He added, “A lot of the people who’ve been trying to take this authority from the United States wanted to do it for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom and limiting it.”

Clinton is correct. And there is simply no reason to take on such an unwarranted risk of censorship, and one that could be global, to boot.

The multistakeholder model will never produce anything close to as effective or binding as the First Amendment and federal judicial oversight. Together they act as a powerful disincentive to any abuse of the IANA and DNS functions by ICANN, and that is not something we should give up lightly.

Robert Romano is the senior editor of Americans for Limited Government. 

Updated: 10:01AM EST.

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