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Michael O'Rielly: Foreign governments want control over the internet

May 24. 2017 10:24PM

An ongoing, global debate has been swirling for years over whether the future of the internet — the greatest man-made technology of our lifetimes — should be determined by governments or the internet community itself. More succinctly, the central question has been whom do we trust deciding how the internet works and what content should be available: authoritarian governments of the world pursuing international regulation, or internet companies and users favoring a wide-open platform?

For most people, it’s like asking, calories aside, would you rather eat a bushel of kale or big bowl of ice cream. And yet, due to the American government’s recent decision to step away from internet governance, the rest of the world feels emboldened to pursue its internet regulatory agenda.

The internet flourished for years under a governance structure known as a multi-stakeholder model, whereby private sector companies, academia and users form solutions to internet technical issues and policies. This also included the U.S. government having a very limited oversight role via a contractual relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN,) the group that hands out domain names.

Notwithstanding the amazing innovation and capabilities brought forth during this arrangement, it was routinely criticized by so-called experts who argued that even a minimalist U.S. government role, designed to preserve internet freedom, was upsetting to foreign nations, and therefore no longer sustainable in the global community.

Instead, they said that if the U.S. terminated involvement in ICANN and ceded our sound principles a bit, authoritarian governments would back off their continued push for more internet government regulation and control. These views eventually won the day, leading to the U.S. government terminating its ICANN relationship in October 2016.

At the time, those who challenged the ICANN deal — of which I was one — were in favor of a true multi-stakeholder approach, not the questionable one being adopted. We argued that there were insufficient mechanisms to prevent authoritarian governments from filling the void in ICANN when the U.S. relinquished its former role.

Equally important, every indication cried out that the transition was being rushed, and highly unlikely to dissuade the efforts of other governments seeking more control over the internet in other settings.

Since a reconstituted ICANN was approved, it only seems appropriate to assess whether the appeasement strategy worked. Not shockingly, it doesn’t seem to have done so. Foreign governments have, in fact, renewed their disturbing calls for government control of the internet via a number of forums, such as the United Nations.

Consider just three recent instances:

At the end of October, member states at the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-16) in Tunisia, held by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), took the unnecessary and inappropriate step of seeking to set technical standards for the Internet of Things. Not only did this inject foreign governments where they didn’t belong (i.e., key internet standards and governance matters,) but some members decided to promote a specific technology — Digital Object Architecture — that could be used to register devices and users in centralized databases, thereby making fees and taxes and even government surveillance much easier.

In early March, China released a paper with much fanfare titled “International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace” that includes its detailed road map for internet rules and principles within the framework of the United Nations. This is the same government that limits the rights of its citizens on the internet, such that they cannot discuss anything that would be considered “subverting state power and jeopardizing national unification; damaging state honor and interests,” among others. It’s also the place mandating every internet activity be availed for review by thousands of human “fact checkers.”

Finally, at ITU study meetings in April, Russia and some African countries put forth a recommendation to define and potentially regulate over-the-top (OTT) content providers. Presented as a means to encourage competition, innovation and investment, it really was a veiled attempt to expand ITU jurisdiction to the internet, as well as to get its grips into popular consumer uses, such as Netflix, Skype, and WhatsApp.

In the short time since ICANN was transitioned to its new structure, there have been multiple plans and proposals by governments to directly involve UN entities in internet governance. It is fair to say that we got the short end of the stick, as our fancy strategy didn’t appease anyone.

Going forward, the United States should learn from the ICANN aftermath and redouble our efforts to quash continuous and systemic assaults on the internet by foreign governments, using all appropriate means.

Michael O’Rielly is a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.

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