This summer, Congress must make sure the internet stays free
© Getty Images

By Sept. 30 of this year, the Obama administration plans to transition its stewardship over core internet functions to the international community. The transition plan presented to the U.S. Department of Commerce was finalized by the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which sets broad policy for the internet's naming system, and coordinates many of its most essential functions. The Department of Commerce has said that it expects to finish its review of the plan by mid-June, giving Congress plenty of time to review it before the September deadline.

ADVERTISEMENT

The plan raises troubling questions that must be answered before it is approved by the U.S. government. At stake are the stability and freedom of the internet, which serves as a personal and commercial lifeline not only to Americans, but also to a majority of people across the globe.

That the internet today is decentralized, open and free of government interference is thanks to the American government's adoption, during the Clinton years, of a multi-stakeholder model of governance. Since early days, it was agreed that the overseers of the internet would be private and governmental groups working together under ICANN's umbrella.

At a recent ICANN meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, however, China, Russia and their allies threatened the careful structure that has worked so well until now by suggesting a competing model of internet governance in which governments themselves would have ultimate control over the internet. The Marrakesh proposals include first a requirement that ICANN obey any advice offered, after a unanimous vote, by its Government Advisory Committee (GAC). Established in 1999 at the time of ICANN's first public meetings, the GAC — with its 162 members and 35 observers consisting primarily of national governments — is not officially a decision-making body. But as its official description explains, it "provides advice on issues of public policy, especially where there may be interaction between ICANN's activities or policies and national laws or international agreements."

Wisely, the ICANN community rejected a proposal that would have required only a majority vote of the GAC for its "advice" to be binding. That would have eliminated the U.S. veto, which is vital to prevent governments from subverting ICANN.

The second proposal concerns the proposed stewardship of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (or "IANA function"), which manages the allocation of numerical IP addresses. As I saw firsthand when I was chairman and CEO of Network Solutions, Inc., which in the late 1990s was administering both the IANA function and the allocation of domain names, he who controls all IP addresses controls the internet. The administrator of the IANA function manages the internet's "root zone" files and the numerical IP addresses, naming protocols and domain names (such as thehill.com) that computers and other devices use to find each other on the internet.

The proposed stewardship of IANA leaves unclear who will play the limited but crucial role currently performed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Department of Commerce; namely, of making sure that any changes to the root-zone domain name file executed by the IANA administrator are in accordance with ICANN policy. The globally decentralized nature of the internet requires a globally authoritative root-zone file for domain names, without which computers would not be able to "find" each other on the net. Administering updates to that file is the "IANA naming function."

That function must be kept strictly technical, managed by engineers without a political agenda. The IANA administrator, contracted by ICANN, should not be expected to decide policy questions, such as whether ".sucks" is a legitimate domain name. Neither should the ICANN community, which sets policy, be given the power to enforce it, as currently proposed. Enforcement should be done by a nonpolitical separate body — perhaps by an independent auditor.

The vision of a free and open internet is increasingly at risk because repressive governments have turned back the tide of internet freedom, and are learning to use both the internet itself, and the global institutions that govern the internet, to strengthen their authoritarian control. According to Freedom House, repressive regimes like Russia and China "have devised subtle and not-so-subtle ways to filter, monitor, and otherwise obstruct or manipulate the openness of the internet." In its 2015 survey, 40 of 65 countries imprisoned people for sharing information on politics, religion or society through digital networks, and even more governments have forced private parties to restrict or remove that sort of content.

Moving forward, ultimate control of the IANA function must never pass to an international organization controlled by governments, whether the United Nations, the International Telecommunications Union, or ICANN recast with governments in control. Congress must ensure that the U.S. remains in a position to protect the stability and freedom of the internet. That means making sure that any institution taking over the stewardship of the internet's core functions should be structured to keep the internet decentralized, open and free.

Daniels is the former Chairman and CEO of Network Solutions, Inc., where he monitored firsthand the administration of the IANA function and the allocation of domain names. He is also chairman of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Global Internet Strategy Project National Advisory Board.