American Elephants


The Administration Will Not Surrender U.S. Protection of the Open Internet—for Now. by The Elephant's Child

The Obama administration has backed off from its plan to abandon U.S. protection of the open internet in 2015, only a month after announcing its plan to do so. Objections from Bill Clinton, a warning letter from 35 Republican senators, and critical congressional hearings and the administration now says the change won’t happen for years, if ever.

The proposed change is an agreement under which the U.S. retains ultimate control over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, known as Icann. Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling told Congress last week they can extend the contract for up four years.

A House panel voted along party lines on Thursday to delay the administration’s plan to surrender oversight over certain internet management functions. Republicans worry that the proposal to transfer power to an international nonprofit group could open the door to an Internet takeover by authoritarian regimes.The bill would block the transfer of Internet powers for up to a year while the Government Accountability Office investigates the administration’s plan. The bill now goes to the full Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration.

Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) argued that the United States should carefully study the proposal before moving forward.”We know what China has done to silence dissent and Vladimir Putin wants to use the powers of the [International Telecommunications Union] to control the internet.”

Democrats accused Republicans of being paranoid. Ranking Democrat Anita Eshoo said “It is not a conspiracy or a digital black helicopter.”

The policy in question is the protection of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS) and the vital Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (ANA)— functions that are the lifeblood of the free flow of information online—linking easy-to-remember domain names to numerical Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Bill Clinton issued a directive to Commerce in 1997, to maintain “a market-driven policy architecture that will allow the new digital economy to flourish while at the same time protecting citizens’ rights and freedoms.” Icann has worked under the auspices of the federal government since 1998 to perform the oversight role.

Obama wants to forsake these essential protections in the name of global accommodation, potentially allowing countries or even bodies like the United Nations to impose their own definition of internet “freedom.” Obama’s decision would be consistent with his views on net neutrality, recent efforts of the FCC to place monitors in U.S. newsrooms and the Justice Department’s surveillance of professional journalists.

There is significant evidence that international groups are big on the “international” or “we are the world” idea, and not so much concerned about freedom and equal access. Many authoritarian countries already try to control and censor the internet. Not everyone believes in freedom of information—and we have considerable evidence in our own country of the current struggle to control speech that is unpopular or provocative or simply disagrees. The recent flap about NSA surveillance has made many international activists concerned, although Internet freedom would seem to offer Internet surveillance free to all comers.

When Icann’s contract with the federal government expires in 2015, it simply means that one government contractor is no longer responsible for the administration task. It does not mean the federal government has agreed to cede the oversight role. Only a vote of the U.S. Congress could do that.

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