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United States Must Preserve the Internet

March 31, 2014
Weekly Columns

What began as a U.S. Defense Department program in the 1960s has become a communications phenomenon that has revolutionized the way we share and acquire information. An American achievement that now connects networks across the globe, the Internet has recently grown from a “high speed” 56k modem in 1996 to a worldwide network that allows users to instantly download and watch TV shows and movies. Without question, going online is a valued part of society that has increased access to information and even helped businesses grow.
Since the Internet’s inception, the United States has understandably played a major role in the supervision of critical back-end web work, including management of domain names through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Back in 2000, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the Department of Commerce began contracting with ICANN to ensure these important functions were performed appropriately and effectively. This oversight role has allowed the United States to maintain an open, stable and secure Internet that is accessible all over the world.
On March 14, 2014, however, the Department of Commerce announced it will not renew its contract with ICANN when it expires in the fall of 2015. Instead, NTIA announced its plans to transition the United States out of its oversight role and turn it over to a global Internet multi-stakeholder community, likely within the United Nations (UN). Because the details of the plan haven't been unveiled, it can be assumed that the Administration’s decision is premature and will threaten the future of the innovative global network.
Because the Internet connects networks across countries, the question of how it should be governed is not unusual. But American freedoms are unique freedoms, not always recognized or likely to be protected under a multi-stakeholder community. In particular, under a global community model, our nation’s freedom of speech could be attacked and censored. The UN’s International Telecommunications Union has long desired to seize oversight of domain names from the United States. Both the House and Senate remain united that it is not time to transition the United States out of its current oversight role. In 2012, both chambers unanimously warned the International Telecommunications Union to maintain the current Internet governance. Last May, the House again showed its concern when it unanimously passed H.R. 1580; this legislation reaffirmed that it is the policy of the United States to preserve and advance the current model that governs the Internet.
While this legislation awaits action in the Senate, leaders on both sides of the aisle have voiced their concern over surrendering this sort of control to a yet-to-be-determined international community. Even former President Bill Clinton spoke out, “A lot of people…have been trying to take this authority from the U.S. for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom and limiting it and having governments protect their backsides instead of empowering their people.”
We cannot and must not ignore the potential threat to our First Amendment rights if the Administration prematurely surrenders control without a real transition plan. I can only assume that countries that don’t share American values will use it as a way to limit the aspects that make it successful. I remain concerned with any national or international attempts to make changes that would fundamentally alter something as robust, innovative and valuable as the Internet.