Consent of the Governed: A Principled Path to a Free and Open Internet | Commentary

Posted February 11, 2015 at 9:28pm

Early last year, the White House announced its plans to go forward with ending any United States government oversight over Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the World Wide Web.

The ICANN is the private sector, non-profit corporation the Clinton administration created in 1998 to coordinate and maintain the system that ensures unique identifiers for websites on the Internet, the global Domain Name System, thereby ensuring the network’s stable and secure operation.

Today the feds act as the final backstop to ensure that ICANN’s role in refereeing the operation of the World Wide Web is as efficient and as free from interference as possible.

However, even with U.S. government oversight, ICANN has taken questionable steps in carrying out its role. For instance, ICANN has tried to use its ability to create and assign Top Level Domains (TLDs such as .com, .org, or .museum) to create a cash cow for itself (a questionable objective for a non-profit). Worse, ICANN pursued this goal in such a reckless way that in 2011, the Federal Trade Commission singled out the organization for exposing consumers to online crooks.

In addition, some of the most recognized companies in the U.S. and abroad have been highly critical of ICANN’s TLD process because of its potential for global infringement. Over seventy major companies, including the Coca-Cola Co., Hewlett-Packard and Samsung, signed a petition against ICANN’s new TLD program (sometimes referred to as a “commercial land grab”) in a group organized by the Association of National Advertisers.

These actions along with reports of questionable internal financial and management activity lead observers to believe that simply untethering ICANN from oversight would be taking the World Wide Web in the wrong direction.

There is no need to re-invent the wheel. Late last year, a number of stakeholders across the globe developed principles that operate with checks and balances — in ways similar to the U.S. Constitution — that provide confidence that even if the U.S. government will no longer act as the backstop to prevent the World Wide Web from being fractured, censored or undermined by dictators and criminals, the Internet can still operate and thrive. Called the Key Principles, these governance rules if implemented would be embedded into the ICANN operational process and provide the only kind of protection that can insure that the Internet remains secure, stable, and free in the absence of U.S. oversight.

The Key Principles are 12 straightforward rules that guarantee transparency, stakeholder input, neutral dispute resolution, budget limitation and protection from rogue government capture.

Lately, there has been talk of adding a further layer of protection, by creating a group of “members” of ICANN — representatives of a wide variety of stakeholder organizations — who would have the power to overrule even the ICANN board of directors if necessary to keep the Internet free and secure. Considering the questionable track record of the board of directors, this is a wise precaution.

Here’s the good news. The White House can ensure that ICANN enacts all of these protections before they end the U.S./ICANN relationship.

The Senate has already made its concerns known, passing unanimously a resolution calling for increased structural accountability at ICANN prior to any transition of the IANA functions away from U.S. stewardship. In particular, the Senate called for formally separating functions related to policy-making, policy implementation, and any independent dispute resolution body.

Let’s be clear. The World Wide Web is perhaps the most innovative and dynamic creation that America has made available to the world. It demonstrates yet again the remarkable way America supports freedom.

Under U.S. auspices we’ve insured that this amazing tool is available to people all over the globe.

But if the White House isn’t careful, the decision to remove the Internet from U.S. oversight will lead to it being controlled and influenced by sinister forces — forces which don’t value liberty, dissent and free expression.

Unfortunately just as we know with freedom generally, an open World Wide Web isn’t going to just exist without intention and preparation. Just as the U.S. Constitution has worked to protect our nation for over 200 years, the Key Principles provide the kind of assurance that we and the world need that freedom on the World Wide Web can continue for another 200 years.

Horace Cooper is a fellow with the Heartland Institute. Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders Newsletter.