From Eastern Europe to the South China Sea, to Northern Iraq and Syria, the West’s post-war world order faces challenges today that were unimaginable two decades ago.
Arguably incited by President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to assert American leadership on the world’s stage, our adversaries see America’s retreat as an opportunity to redraw the map and reshape the world in ways we all have reason to fear. But to view this global transformation only in terms of armed conflict and territorial disputes is to miss an important new front in the fight for freedom: the Internet.
For the time being, authoritarian regimes lack the tools necessary to block websites beyond their own borders. They can coerce and control individual Internet Service Providers, but they cannot change the root zone files of global Internet’s domain name system. Such changes are only possible through the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority functions maintained by the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
ICANN’s responsible management of these functions, which involves matching IP addresses (220.127.116.11, for example) with their corresponding domain name (google.com, in this example), is critical to the smooth operation of the free and open Internet. For decades, the National Telecommunications Information Administration at the Department of Commerce has provided important oversight of ICANN and the IANA functions they perform. But in March, NTIA announced their intention to transition U.S. oversight of ICANN and the DNS to the “global Internet community.”
In theory, this transition follows a long-anticipated, congressionally endorsed plan to empower Internet architects and engineers, civil society, and technology industry stakeholders with the authority to maintain the DNS without government intrusion. In reality, the proposed transition creates an opportunity for authoritarian governments to supplant ICANN with the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union and expand their ability to censor and restrict access to the Internet around the world.
While NTIA downplays the ITU takeover threat, the State Department recently launched a campaign to raise awareness of the Internet governance debate. That campaign, as reported by the Washington Post, urges “nerds” in “global swing states” to support continued governance through ICANN at the ITU plenipotentiary meeting in October. The State Department is right to be concerned about where the IANA transition could lead. If we’ve learned nothing else from Obama’s foreign policy, it’s that in the absence of U.S. leadership, our adversaries from Moscow to Beijing will seize every opportunity to fill the void and advance their own agendas.
In response to NTIA’s naivety and echoing concerns raised by voices as diverse as former President Bill Clinton, Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales and the Heritage Foundation, I authored the DOTCOM Act to require a Government Accountability Office report to Congress on the IANA transition plan before it’s too late. The GAO report would include a discussion and analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the transition and address the national security concerns raised by relinquishing U.S. oversight.
Though I share the administration’s desire to see the Internet run by benign stakeholders without fear of a government takeover, I’m far less optimistic that such an outcome is achievable in today’s environment. If we prematurely abandon our commitment to oversee Internet governance, no amount of American power and influence will be able to restore what is lost: the Internet Open and Free.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., is a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.