The ICANN Internet handover explained

Posted on October 15, 2016

Tags: obama icann un politics net neutrality internet privacy censorship

At midnight, September 30th, 2016 a major transfer of power was initiated by the United States to the United Nations. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) went from the control of the US Department of Commerce over to a non-profit organization. This means that ICANN is now essentially an independent body that is now accountable to stakeholders from around the world. This includes government advisory boards, industry and technical committees as well as those in telecommunications and the internet.

This represents a major shift of the internet itself from US control to that of being subject to international forces. There was a last-ditch effort launched by the attorney generals of Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas to try and stop the move, but it failed.

What does ICANN do?

Based in Los Angeles, ICANN is responsible for the coordination of the domain name system which matches internet addresses with their numerical computer addresses. The supporters of the transition claim that this action will help keep the internet free and open to all users. However, its opponents state that the United States offers far more protection for the freedom of the internet compared to the current status that now exists.

The plan for the transfer had been in the works since March, 2014 and despite numerous attempts to derail the transfer it went through with relatively little national interest on the first of October. It was stated by officials in the Obama administration that any delay of the transfer would undermine the credibility of the United States when it came to international negotiations over the standards and security of the internet itself.

However, were such concerns legitimate and will the consequences for handing over ICANN live up to the warnings that came from those such as Senator and former Presidential candidate Ted Cruz who described the transfer as basically handing Russia the internet?

Why the Transfer of ICANN is a Bad Idea

There are several reasons why the control of ICANN being transferred to the UN represents a very bad idea that may have terrible consequences for the freedom of the internet. Virtually all of the reasons have to do with Senator Cruz’s statement and what it means for those who currently enjoy the free, uninterrupted speech and expression that the web enjoys today.

By moving ICANN over to the United Nations, it means that countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and even North Korea will have a say as to what constitutes free expression on the internet. Given that so many countries do not share the American ideal of free expression, the danger that the internet will become more regulated is a real possibility.

The most obvious curtailing of free speech will be in the political arena where countries like Iran and China have tight control over their people. Those who speak out against their governments, report abuses to their people, the locking up and in some cases execution of political prisoners will be dampened by the new governance body that now runs ICANN. However, as in most cases of the restrictions of speech, it will generally start with subjects that most people actually agree should be limited.

The Slippery Slope

History has shown repeatedly that countries which enjoyed certain levels of democracy and freedom only to see such privileges disappear occurred when more totalitarian regimes took control. Such regimes succeeded in part by convincing the populous that certain forms of expression such as obscenity, pornography, and mostly those that were incendiary in nature would be restricted.

Since most of the population was for such measures, it was easy to get them passed. Soon, the minority which objected to the curtailing of speech were singled out and attacked. Again, most of the population were in agreement because the creation of such chaos would be detrimental to their interests. Unfortunately, by the time that most people realized just how much freedom they had lost, it was too late for them to gain it back.

While the internet is not a country, it is an entity that now is subject to the leadership of countries that strongly object to the freedom that the internet enjoys. While they may not act immediately, it would not be surprising to see in the near future actions that chip away at the freedom the internet offers.

Why Control by the United States Matters

The United States is a country governed by strong laws that protect free speech and expression. Over the course of over two centuries, there have been numerous challenges to the first amendment of the Constitution that governs free speech. All of them have failed thanks to the multi-layered protection of the Supreme Court and the political parties in charge of the executive and legislative branches that work to protect such freedoms.

As long as ICANN was under the US Department of Commerce, it was protected by the same political and court system that follows the Constitution. However, now it no longer enjoys such protection. This is because the international body which now controls ICANN can pass new decrees which may restrict the freedoms now enjoyed and curtail the potential of the internet all without the United States being able to intervene.

What started with good intentions of allowing different countries around the world to have a say about the power and authority of ICANN may quickly become a nightmare if such predicted measures are passed. The internet represents one of the last domains of freedom of expression and thus should be protected by an entity that has at the core of its laws freedom of speech like the United States.

The problem now is that once the movement towards restrictions becomes a reality, it will most likely be too late to do anything about it. Once control has been shifted, it can be very difficult to get it back. With ICANN now a part of the UN, it really has become a part of the very nations that will seek to remove the greatest gift that the internet offers, freedom of speech.