Some politicians are screaming that ICANN controlling the Internet means the death of the First Amendment online. Maybe not.
The Internet is now in the hands of a private nonprofit, instead of being administered by the U.S. government. This is an historic, yet controversial, decision which had drawn the praise and criticism from a variety of outlets.
“This transition was envisioned 18 years ago, yet it was the tireless work of the global Internet community, which drafted the final proposal, that made this a reality,” Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers Board Chair Stephen D. Crocker crowed. “This community validated the multistakeholder model of Internet governance. It has shown that a governance model defined by the inclusion of all voices, including business, academics, technical experts, civil society, governments and many others is the best way to assure that the Internet of tomorrow remains as free, open and accessible as the Internet of today.”
Almost a dozen U.S. Senate Republicans were furious about the decision, specifically Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who led the charge in trying to keep the Internet administered by the U.S. government. Cruz’ main concern was a loss of free speech, because ICANN has an advisory board which included Iran and Russia.
“As a private organization, ICANN is not bound by the First Amendment, which ICANN’s CEO and President Göran Marby admitted in a recent Senate hearing.” Cruz and Wisconsin Congressman Sean Duffy recently wrote in The Daily Signal. “The First Amendment applies only to the government. So if the government is out of the picture, the First Amendment is too. And that means that ICANN would be free to regulate Internet speech by restricting which websites can gain access to the Internet based on their speech…As the body responsible for delegating all top-level domains like .com or .org to registry operators, ICANN has unique leverage and influence over the policies that govern the entire internet ecosystem.”
Cruz and Duffy paint a dire picture of the U.S. government acting as the final bulwark against ICANN and its stakeholders from deciding what people could view online. “In a world that does not share our robust commitment to free speech, that possibility is frightening. Imagine an internet where so-called ‘hate-speech’ – a notoriously malleable concept – is prohibited, lik in many European countries, or where blasphemy is banned, like in many Middle Eastern countries, or where political criticism is penalized, like in China.”
Even Bill Clinton weighed in on Internet freedom, holding a similar view from his counterparts across the aisle. It’s understandable why there are these concerns. The Internet shouldn’t be censored and people should be able to go to whatever website they want, as long as no one is being hurt, having their property stolen, or losing their liberty.
But what if privatizing the Internet was the right thing to do? What if making it private would actually keep governments from becoming even more tyrannical, or expose just how tyrannical they were becoming? Jerry Brito from Mercatus Center argued in Reason.com in 2014 how privatization is something conservatives should be cheering, “Indeed, consider what would be the conservative reaction if ICANN had full control over the domain name system and the Obama administration announced it was bringing it under control. No doubt they would scream bloody murder.”
Brito also points out ICANN decided to create the Government Advisory Council as a way to make sure U.S. influence on the Internet wasn’t as strong. “By giving up that control, the Obama Administration can seriously undermine the primary justification used by authoritarian regimes to agitate for control of the Internet. This is likely the Administration’s long game, and they should go as far as demanding that the GAC be dissolved.” ICANN spokesperson Brad White says the nonprofit will still use the council, “The GAC will most definitely remain…. And the U.S. is and will continue to be a member of the GAC.”
Merecatus’ Eli Dourado takes it a step further. “The fact that governments are not evidently needed to coordinate global Internet resources raises the valid question of whether other stakeholder communities want governments to represent them or whether they want to represent themselves.” He wrote in 2014. “Many are electing to represent themselves. On a consent-based view of the legitimacy of government, other stakeholder communities have this right.”
There’s also another reason supporters of the Internet privatization are calling Friday’s handover a good thing: the rise of Donald Trump. The Republican presidential nominee has argued in favor of censoring the Internet, under the idea of “make America safe again.”
This is something which should cause people to recoil in fear and horror, and run towards supporting Internet privatization. It’s true the U.S. government doesn’t “own the Internet,” but even giving any authoritarian a hint of power over the Internet is a dangerous thing to do.
What’s interesting is how conservatives and libertarians seemed to be highly concerned when ICANN was created in the first place. Former Cato staffer Solveig Stevenson wrote in 1998 how ICANN had too cozy of a relationship with government and questioned whether it would become a puppet of the GAC. ICANN does publish their meetings online and anyone can attend them, so the transparency has increased exponentially. It seems rather hypocritical that some of these so-called “constitutional conservatives” now want the U.S. to retain its involvement in ICANN, instead of letting the Internet be fully privatized.
It’s understandable why people are concerned about the web being privatized, but the concerns seem overblown. It isn’t ICANN which is blocking domains from being accessed in North Korea or Russia or China, but the individual governments. Privatizing the Internet is a good thing and something free speech advocates on the Right and Left should be praising, not trying to do away with. The bigger issue is Net Neutrality, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Updated 6:15pm EDT: Added statement from ICANN spokesperson Brad White.