LAST MONTH, China hosted the first World Internet Conference and gave everyone reason to worry. At the last minute, Chinese officials tried to ram through a declaration calling for governments to exert greater control over the fastest and freest communications tool the world has ever seen, using the chilling concept of “Internet sovereignty” to justify it. Russia, meanwhile, has crushed its most prominent Internet entrepreneur — Pavel Durov, the founder of a major Facebook-like application — after he refused to cooperate with the Kremlin.
It’s bad enough that these authoritarian governments repress online expression within their borders. They should not be let anywhere near the governance of the Internet’s global infrastructure. Yet the Commerce Department is proceeding with a plan to relinquish supervision of one crucial element of world Internet governance to an international body, which may not be sufficiently resistant to influence from the world’s many would-be censors. If the situation doesn’t improve, Commerce should halt the march toward a formal turnover.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is responsible for a lot of everyday maintenance — essentially acting as the Internet’s phone book. Until recently, its major policy dilemmas have revolved around whether to create new top-level domain names such as .tv or .xxx. But now it is at the center of a potentially perilous transition. It continues to operate under the Commerce Department’s benign oversight, but Commerce’s contract with ICANN is up next year. Relying on a global community of Internet engineers, businesses and other nongovernmental entities, ICANN wants to end one of the last vestiges of formal U.S. control over the global Internet, completing the transfer of responsibility for maintaining basic Internet functionality to a multi-stakeholder organization that operates by consensus and independently of any government.
The problem is that no one yet has a convincing explanation for how the multi-stakeholder model will be immune to pernicious influences from governments. Independent voices from global nongovernmental interests are supposed to suffuse the ICANN system and provide a self-correcting ethos. But civil society in many countries is deeply connected to the state, and those states will try to manipulate or control as much as they can. Details of the technical transition are being hammered out, but the accountability measures and controls that will be vital to establishing and preserving a legitimate global Internet governance are taking longer.
Commerce still holds a trump card: It can renew its contract with ICANN. The Obama administration has said it will insist on adequate protections for freedom of speech before it lets go, and it must stick to that commitment. That could be hard: The Snowden revelations have put pressure on the Obama administration. Yet the free and open Internet has thrived under existing arrangements. The United States should not allow other governments to use the leaks as a pretext to gain control of Internet governance.