Congress Makes Mountains Out Of Digital Molehills In Latest Internet Skirmish

09/16/2016 11:14 am ET

For years the Internet has been the battleground in a global fight over information access and free speech. Now some in Congress have jumped in and from the heated rhetoric it’s not clear whether they simply don’t understand how the Internet works and the actual choices before them - or they are trying to score political points with their rhetorical jujitsu.

What should be a measured discourse over the final steps in a long-planned process to privatize administration of narrow Internet addressing functions has quickly turned into a bully pulpit for jingoistic nationalism and misunderstandings about the Internet and freedom of speech online.

A great deal of hand-wringing has taken place over the Obama Administration’s alleged “give-away” of U.S. control of the Internet to an international body subject to oppressive whims. A proper understanding of the facts of the IANA stewardship transition makes clear that this mischaracterization could not be further from the truth.

The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) is a core part of the online directory system that allows you to type in a web address and arrive at a webpage hosted on server elsewhere on the Internet. The IANA transition, which has been a goal of both Democratic and Republican administrations since 1997, would transfer stewardship of this addressing system to the global community of Internet stakeholders through the private sector-led Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN currently runs IANA under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is set to expire on October 1st.

Neither Department of Commerce, nor ICANN, nor the IANA function have any power to determine the kind of content or speech you find online, and that will not change after the transition. The U.S. government and ICANN currently have about as much control over the Internet as the TV Guide has over commercial television.

Following the planned expiration of its contract with Commerce, ICANN will continue to administer IANA, but at the direction of the the global Internet community—composed of the private sector, civil society, and advising governments—which for two years has prepared and tested a thorough plan to make the transition technically seamless and ICANN more transparent and directly accountable to Internet stakeholders.

Both supporters and opponents of the IANA transition agree that countries like Russia and China, which engage in restrictive behaviors and censorship online, should not have more control over the Internet. Transitioning IANA stewardship will not lead to increased control over the Internet by restrictive regimes. In fact, they will have even less influence than they do today. A number of the key changes to ICANN as part of the transition process are specifically designed to reduce the influence of the government advisory committee through which nations provide input to ICANN.

But reneging on the United States’ commitment to completing the IANA transition will have the precise negative its opponents in Congress say they seek to avoid. Oppressive regimes will be able to point to the U.S. as acting in bad faith with respect to its longstanding promises to the international stakeholder community, seriously damaging both the U.S.’s credibility with key allies and the trust users have in the independent governance of the Internet’s technical underpinnings.

Russia and China, rather than being marginalized through the accountability and transparency measures instituted as part of the IANA transition, will feel newly empowered. They will again seek to rehouse ICANN’s governance functions in a multilateral body like the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, where they have outsized influence, or they will seek to develop a parallel internet addressing system that they control, severing the single Internet we have today.

This is the reason that almost all civil society organizations, rights groups, businesses, and countries that have historically fought for freedom of expression and openness online are uniformly aligned support the IANA transition. When faced with the choice to meaningfully improve upon the status quo through the transition, or further the interests of authoritarian regimes, the decision for the global Internet community was a clear one.

I hope Congress is also able to see the stark options arrayed before it. Delaying or derailing the transition will only serve to further the interests of those opposed to the Internet’s ability to connect people and foster the exchange of ideas.

The continued stability and openness of the Internet bears directly on the economic and national security of the United States. I encourage Congress to allow the transition to continue unabated.

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