Obama's great internet giveaway

As the Obama presidency winds down, political forces are determined to tie up a flurry of policy loose ends before a new administration comes into office. Among several actions on a fast track is the White House’s intention to transfer the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which assigns and maintains domain names and IP addresses worldwide, from U.S. oversight to the global community this September. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration plans to release a review of the transition proposal this Friday.

Ceding vital pieces of the internet’s core functionality to the open international stage, where China, Russia and other authoritarian governments will be able to directly influence and shape internet policy, while undercutting internet freedoms is concerning, especially when you consider the expanding tentacles of online censorship globally. It’s already well known that Beijing actively bans web addresses they deem “politically offensive.” The list of words banned from being used was reported to total as many as 40,000 and included words such as “liberty”, “freedom” and “democracy.”  


But internet censorship isn’t limited to authoritative governments.  Google, Facebook and Twitter have all fallen in line with the German government over sanitizing online negative posts about the Merkel government and its approaches on immigration and multiculturalism. And just last week, the same coalition of Silicon Valley tech giants agreed to work with the European Union to take down “hate speech” within 24 hours. What constitutes “hate speech” could be one thing today, another tomorrow, a definition left up to governments, and this step walks a very thin and scary line. 

While the official plan is to transition the IANA contract to a global, “multistakeholder community,” lawmakers on Capitol Hill recognize the very real threats facing such a plan, a plan where the benefits are still very elusive. Oppressive regimes have been calling for this transition from the U.S. to other governmental entities for years; countries like Russia have very publicly pushed for the United Nations and its member states to oversee IANA functions - the very plumbing of the internet.  

Senator Rubio (R-FL) and several of his colleagues including Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSenators sound alarm on dangers of ransomware attacks after briefing Push to investigate Bidens sets up potential for Senate turf war Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases MORE (R-Wis.), Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Overnight Defense: Trump cancels presser, cuts short NATO trip | Viral video catches leaders appearing to gossip about Trump | Dem witnesses say Trump committed impeachable offenses | Trump reportedly mulling more troops in Middle East Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators MORE (R-Mo.), Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary MORE (R-Nev.), and Dan Sullivan (R-Ark.) are urging an extension for U.S. oversight and a slowdown of the transfer. "While we still control the process and the timeline, once we move past a certain point, there is no leverage to pull back,” Rubio stated at a recent Senate hearing.  “If this thing goes off the rails — if it in fact gets used in a nefarious way — what leverage do we have to pull back on it?"

Senator Cruz has taken a more aggressive approach through legislation that prohibits the National Telecommunications and Information Administration from allowing the IANA contract to lapse unless specifically authorized to do so by an Act of Congress.  "The U.S. government has long protected the core of the internet from authoritarian regimes who view the internet as a way to increase their influence and suppress our online freedom of speech,” Cruz states. “The United States cannot allow authoritarian regimes to increase their influence over the core operating functions of the internet."

An artificial deadline set by this Administration shouldn’t force a rushed process. Applying the brakes on the IANA transfer to allow more thoughtful review and deliberation is wise.  A plan this important deserves a full vetting and time to stress test it in practice to make sure it is in fact working, before removing the current U.S. oversight.

Under American stewardship the internet, free from multilateral control, has become one of the greatest tools to foster democracy through the rapid proliferation of free speech and ideas.  In that regard, the U.S. has a critical role in ensuring that the internet retains these basic tenets of freedom before rushing to give it away to countries that may not share the same mission. Authoritative regimes, which have historically called for the U.S. to relinquish its oversight, are now openly embracing the IANA transfer and that should raise red flags. 

The future of the internet shouldn’t be rushed to meet the legacy desires of a lame duck presidency.

Johnson is National Director of Protect Internet Freedom, a grassroots, nonprofit organization of 1.6 million supporters dedicated to defending a truly free and open internet, and preserving it as a tool for democratic distribution of information, societal change, and technological innovation.