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09.30.2014 0

The Internet already has a Magna Carta, it’s called the First Amendment

internet_questionsBy Robert Romano

“There have been lots of times that it has been abused, so now the Magna Carta is about saying… I want a web where I’m not spied on, where there’s no censorship.”

That was Internet innovator Tim Berners-Lee — the British inventor responsible for the hypertext markup language (HTML) used to create web pages, the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and universal resource locators (URLs) that undergird the modern World Wide Web — speaking in favor of the free and open Internet.

Berners-Lee was equally critical of censorship that might arise in both the public and private spheres, by governments or by companies.

“If a company can control your access to the internet, if they can control which websites they go to, then they have tremendous control over your life. If a government can block you going to, for example, the opposition’s political pages, then they can give you a blinkered view of reality to keep themselves in power,” Berners-Lee said.

He added, “Suddenly the power to abuse the open internet has become so tempting both for government and big companies.”

It is curious, then that Berners-Lee is also a supporter of the transfer of Internet governance — administration of the Internet Assigned Names and Numbers (IANA) functions and the domain name system (DNS) — out from under Department of Commerce oversight to under the sole discretion of the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

At the April 2014 Netmundial in Brazil, he said, “I was also pleased to hear that ICANN is beginning a dialogue to create a multi-stakeholder review process to replace that of the U.S. government. That is appropriate because ICANN services the global public interest.”

Yet, if Berners-Lee supports net neutrality because he fears corporate Internet control, what greater danger of global censorship than concentrating the assignment of domain names and Internet Protocol (IP) address into a single, unaccountable, private foundation?

Those who say these powers cannot be wielded for ill are naïve. Then why transfer them at all if there is no danger of censorship?

Why use the specter of U.S. government surveillance via the National Security Agency (NSA) — a program that has almost nothing to do with Internet governance — to call for an end to the U.S. oversight? The Commerce Department government contract with ICANN could expire tomorrow, and that would not stop the NSA from working with Internet service providers like Verizon to get whatever it is they’re looking for.

If the powers over Internet governance could be abused under U.S. Commerce Department oversight — which is actually limited in the exercise of powers by the First Amendment protections of freedom and speech, and offers recourse in federal courts — surely then it could be abused by a private, transnational foundation that is bound by neither.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was at the forefront criticizing the risks posed by the transfer to ICANN. “Internet administration has always guaranteed free speech and due process, since it has been done by U.S. Government contractors who are required to follow the U.S. Constitution. If the New IANA moves Internet administration out from under the U.S. Government, as there is general agreement to do, the public will lose these guarantees,” Shari Steele, Staff Counsel at EFF warned at the time.

Berners-Lee is right to speak out against censorship in all of its forms on the Internet, and against warrantless surveillance of country’s own citizens.

But when it comes to Internet governance, it is hard to contrive how a global monopoly held by a single foundation with no legal recourse in the event it is wielded to censor political opponents would be better than the current system.

The Internet already has a Magna Carta, it’s called the First Amendment. Anything else is a recipe for breaking the current free and open Internet.

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

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