Keeping internet governance out of the wrong hands

The U.S. government’s decision to fully privatize oversight of the internet Domain Name System (DNS) is running into resistance. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) introduced a bill, S. 3034 / H.R. 5418, to “protect [the Internet] from authoritarian regimes.” And Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz warned that the U.S. administration is “handing authoritarian regimes the power they have long sought to censor the web globally.” These concerns, while not irrational, are seriously overblown, and well-intended efforts to block the privatization plan would actually put internet freedom at greater risk.

{mosads}Since 1998, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has exercised stewardship over key DNS functions through a contract with the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). These functions allow connected devices to send data within and across national borders. ICANN provides quite technical services to ensure that every internet address is unique and all internet users can find all valid addresses. It doesn’t deal with online content.

The NTIA’s arrangement with ICANN largely privatized key domain name functions. The global community of multiple internet stakeholders — engineers, business representatives, civil society activists — has decided how to manage these functions over the past 18 years, while the NTIA has provided official oversight.

In 2014, the NTIA began a process to turn its stewardship of central DNS functions over to the multistakeholder community and asked ICANN to come up with a plan to strengthen accountability mechanisms. This transition was prompted by the need to stave off pernicious and growing demands from repressive regimes like China and Russia to regulate the internet through the United Nations or other international bodies.

Earlier this month, the NTIA signed off on ICANN’s plan, which adds strong safeguards to prevent capture or manipulation by any single entity, whether it be a government, company or another self-interested party. While public scrutiny is still needed to make sure the plan unfolds as intended — and strong commitments to respect human rights are put into practice — it is a significant step forward in keeping the internet open and globally interconnected.

ICANN’s plan limits the influence of individual governments by requiring consensus among more than 160 governments to make policy or governance recommendations. No advice can be issued over a formal objection by the U.S. or any other government.

Some have proposed a two-year extension of the NTIA’s contract with ICANN, to ensure that ICANN’s proposed accountability mechanisms are implemented and operate as envisioned before the transition to multistakeholder community oversight is completed. But these mechanisms cannot be really tested until the U.S. government relinquishes oversight. And the two-year delay will fuel further calls for U.N. regulation and undermine the credibility of U.S. support for the engagement of multiple stakeholders in internet governance. U.S. policy has rightly promoted multistakeholder governance to give business and civil society a strong voice and thereby counteract the influence of authoritarian regimes seeking to restrict online freedom.

As Freedom House has documented, internet freedom is in decline, as censorship and online surveillance expands around the world. Authoritarian governments seek U.N. regulation or agreements among states to justify their internet restrictions and wall off parts of their country’s internet from outside influence. To defend internet freedom, the U.S. government has wisely focused on keeping global internet governance out of their control and instead leaving the internet’s key technical functions to engineers, business and civil society, whose mission is to preserve the internet as an open, globally interconnected platform. The U.S. government would do well to continue this policy by completing the transition to a fully privatized internet Domain Name System.

Lagon is president of Freedom House and served as U.S. ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking under former President George W. Bush. Donahoe is an officer of the Freedom House Board and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council under President Obama.

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