Editorial: Keep the internet under U.S. control

The Detroit News
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The Obama administration seems determined to undermine one of the United States’ most critical assets and responsibilities — the internet — before the president leaves the White House. But the ramifications of that on free speech globally would be enormous.

Since the 1990s, the U.S. has controlled top-level domain naming and root zone filing — whether an organization is designated .com, .gov, .uk, etc. — through the National Telecommunications Information Administration, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department. It has maintained a contract with a private California nonprofit, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), to do so.

Though other countries are involved in the governance, the U.S. has always had the ultimate say over changes at the most basic levels of internet functionality. This has kept the internet largely open and free from censorship by authoritative regimes.

Now countries like Russia and China could control ICANN, if Congress doesn’t step in. At the end of September, the federal government is set to allow the ICANN contract to expire, and turn instead to a global, multi-nation governing structure, including some countries that don’t care very much for free speech or the free flow of ideas.

The plans proposed thus far for how this new governing structure will work offer few assurances for free speech, much less consistency with how the internet functions.

Russia, China and other bad actors would receive greater influence, gaining for the first time the power to vote on changes to bylaws, removing members from the board, and other critical governance questions.

The new version of ICANN would be a board with little influence over the behavior of its member nations. Russia has already signaled it wants a role “more meaningful than just advisory,” once the U.S. surrenders control.

Private companies such as Disney, NBC Universal and 21st Century Fox have expressed concerns over the new plan for internet dominance, and noted in a letter to Congress that “significant questions remain regarding” the new organization’s readiness to take over.

Feeble leadership by the United States will threaten intellectual property and domain name piracy and embolden criminal organizations or even terrorist groups to manipulate the internet.

For two years, Congress has blocked the administration’s attempt to unilaterally make this transition. It’s forbidden for taxpayer dollars to be used for disbanding the old structure and creating a new one.

The House will try to do so again this month. Several members of Congress also have introduced legislation to require explicit congressional approval before the administration can change control of the authority.

Congress must stay vigilant in blocking this ill-conceived effort by the Obama administration. The current system has kept the internet free, and that’s the way it should remain.

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