Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental principles of any successful democracy. Freedom of the Internet goes one step further. It's a fundamental principle of a cooperative world, protected in large part by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Starting now, people from countries around the world are gathering in Singapore to discuss ICANN's future; having a conversation that will play out over the course of the next year and culminate with new governance that will have significant implications for all human beings.
ICANN keeps the Internet secure, stable and interoperable by governing the worldwide system that assigns website addresses and directs Internet traffic. According to the nonprofit organization, its international body of participants dedicate themselves to "one world, one Internet." That's a pretty huge responsibility, which is why up until now, the United States Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has taken a seat at the head of the table that oversees ICANN.
But then word came out that the Obama administration had decided to hand over authority of the nonprofit organization to a non-government entity to be named at a later date. On paper, that's a head scratcher. Why would any country willingly give up such an influential position to a vital entity with a home base located inside its own borders (Marina Del Ray, California)?
We can thank the NSA and the Edward Snowden fiasco for that. The growing distrust people have expressed with our government threatens to make ICANN guilty by association. And if globally people voice such concerns about this neutral and vital organization, then ICANN could lose its power, leading Internet governance down a rabbit hole filled with partisan agendas and sectarian action. The ensuing debacle would also deal a serious blow to Net Neutrality, which is already at risk.
This current state of affairs is truly unfortunate because in truth, the U.S. has been an excellent steward, considering that the intent was never to oversee ICANN, let alone for upwards of 15 years. In 1997, Bill Clinton helped create the organization within his Green Paper proposal for privatizing the domain name system (DNS); the complete fulfillment of which would have relieved us many years ago of its oversight. In spite of that thoughtful (at the time) vision, our impartiality and creation of checks and balances built into the system have led to a rather impressive run, one that has averted partisan politics and lobbyists. And, in truth, ICANN is already run by a carefully designed international cluster of entities and organizations -- the U.S.A. is simply the safety container in which it is housed.
Of course that has continuously raised eyebrows, and since ICANN was formed in 1998, many countries, organizations, and influential individuals have raised concerns about its close links to the NTIA, an entity that falls under the aforementioned umbrella of our very own U.S. Commerce Department. In lieu of recent revelations about the NSA overreaching its charter and purpose by spying on more than just our enemies but our friends and allies as well, we've lost a lot of credibility. And as a result, such as in the case of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose private emails and text were monitored by the NSA, we've lost key support as well for our stewardship of ICANN.
So President Obama decided to separate the United States from any accusations of biased behavior and perceived back door access for our spying infrastructure. Such a decision, ultimately for whatever reason, does not come without dangers. I believe that the worst conclusion here would be for the Internet to become fragmented whereby countries and regions dictate their own unique rules and guidelines (in essence their own ICANNs). Countries already exercise their ability to block incoming websites from being accessed on their domestic Internet provider platforms. But imagine if this phenomenon became a widespread epidemic, whereby every country had its own Internet. The World Wide Web would become anything but, leading to an economic and individual rights disaster that would complicate commerce and freedom around the world.
What we must have is a clear, enforceable, protected solution whereby ICANN does not fall under the influence of the colors of any country's flag or political leader. Countries like Russia, China and others would relish the opportunity to cast their shadows of across ICANN's bow. Importantly, ICANN must find a way to rise above the fray, to transcend politics in the name of freedom, technology, economics, and global communications. A viable new oversight solution must come with measures of full transparency and accountability to ensure the viability of its mission. The structure must be ironclad with a series of checks and balances built in that prevents influence or easy changes. ICANN basically needs a charter of protection similar to our Constitution in that it protects the rights of freedom and accessibility for all and enables change only with clear due process and support.
Whatever new governance structure for ICANN, meant to go into effect in September 2015, will keep providing the entire world with access to a free Internet, without powerful corporations or individual countries pirating the processes or gaining undue advantage in any shape of form. However, if the new structure for ICANN that emerges cannot insure against outside political influence, protect our freedoms, and provide these equal accesses, then the U.S. government must withhold support and revoke its decision to abdicate. The risk is too great and the ramifications of multiple world webs forming too great to allow any other conclusion. The U.S.A. has damaged itself by its unbridled propensity to gather intelligence data on every living thing; yet the truths that we hold to be self-evident are still at our core. In the resurrection of our good standing with citizens of the world who looked up to us as the shining example of freedom and democracy, protecting the integrity of ICANN must be at the top of the list.
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