But the misguided call for the United States to exert unilateral control over ICANN does nothing to advance free speech because ICANN, in fact, has no power whatsoever over individual speech online. ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — supervises domain names on the Internet. The actual flow of traffic, and therefore speech, is up to individual network and platform operators.
There is no international law or treaty that calls the Internet into existence or forces everyone to use the same standards and technology. Rather, it is a voluntary effort of people around the world.
The global consensus at the heart of the Internet exists by virtue of trust built up over decades with people from all over the world collaborating on the technical design and operation of the network and the web. ICANN is a critical part of this global consensus. But if the United States were to reverse plans to allow the global Internet community to operate ICANN independently, as Sen. Cruz is now proposing, we risk undermining the global consensus that has enabled the Internet to function and flourish over the last 25 years.
Contrary to the senator’s view, ICANN is no “mini-United Nations.” ICANN is a vital part of the voluntary, global network of private organizations that provides Internet stability and the ability to innovate free from government interventions around the world.
ICANN includes the commercial sector, civil society, and engineers, along with governments functioning as peers, not masters, making decisions about how the Internet naming system is run. This system works well — but is fragile.
We care deeply that the Internet acts as a platform for global free speech, expands access to knowledge for people around the world, and grows as a platform for social, political and economic innovation.
But by forcibly undermining the global Internet community’s ability to make decisions about ICANN, the United States would stoop to the level of Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes that believe in the use of force to limit freedom online.
Sen. Cruz’s plan to ride to the defense of the Internet on a white horse is based on a fundamental misconception. He thinks that the Internet was “invented by the incredible ingenuity of the American people,” according to his opening statement in a recent Senate hearing.
Indeed, the U.S. government did play the leading role in creating the Internet and the World Wide Web. But from the very beginning, its design and deployment was a truly global project, with contributions from all around the world. The World Wide Web was actually invented at the CERN physics lab in Geneva by one of us, who happens to be a British citizen.
Repressive governments expend a great deal of energy censoring speech online — but they do so entirely without ICANN. Those governments oppress their people the old-fashioned way, by disregarding human rights and undermining the rule of law.
Let’s consider the most egregious threats to free speech and human rights online. Egypt shuts down nearly all Internet traffic during the Arab Spring to disrupt citizen’s right to oppose the government. Pakistan blocks access to entire platforms such as YouTube because they host a few offending videos, with the result that a huge amount of speech is suppressed.
ICANN had no role in these shutdowns nor could it prevent them. Countries such as China and Iran operate large-scale firewalls controlling nearly all of the Internet’s content within their countries and restricting what information can cross the border. ICANN cannot shut down these firewalls. And Russia routinely mounts attacks on web sites of opposition groups inside and outside the country, leading to suppression of democratic discourse. ICANN has no role in preventing this kind of hacking.
Despite all of this, Sen. Cruz argues that the U.S. should hold on to ICANN to stop other countries or companies from using it to abridge free speech. Cruz does not explain how ICANN could be used as a censorship tool.
From our technical and policy perspective, we believe there is no effective way for the United States to use leverage at ICANN to force countries to stop censoring speech.
What we do know is that for the Internet to work, we need global consensus on technical standards and operating procedures such as those that are administered by ICANN. Without this consensus, the networks operated by numerous companies in over a hundred countries around the world will cease to flow. The web sites designed by the leading Internet companies and hundreds of millions of individuals will cease to work. And the very domain names that we use to identify these web sites will fail.
One of the smartest things the United States and its allies have done over the years is to encourage countries, companies and individual users to rely on the technical and social consensus that makes the Internet work. The global reach of the Internet has been an extraordinary boon for the United States and for those countries that embrace the open nature of Internet technology.
We hope Congress will avoid the risk of breaking apart the extraordinary technical platform that connects the whole world.
Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, is professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding director of the World Wide Web Foundation. Weitzner is director of the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative and was deputy chief technology officer in the White House from 2011-2012.