No, Russia Isn't About To Take Over Your Internet: Protecting Internet Freedom From Both Simplistic Defenders, Internet Restricting Countries

Let there be no mistake: the future and openness of the Internet is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, recent headlines could easily lead someone who hasn't followed Internet policy to think the United States recently and suddenly decided to give up control over the Internet - and that this will give rise to censorship and other misfortune around the world.

The truth, as explained by the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in testimony before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Wednesday, is that relinquishing control of the Internet addressing system is a strategic move not just for the United States, but for all those around the world committed to Internet freedom.

It is exactly because such countries like Russia and China are seeking greater international governmental control over Internet content, that the recent NTIA proposal is to be lauded. It conditionally frees the existing multi-stakeholder institution from the remaining minor residual control the Department of Commerce has maintained. Under this institutional model the Internet has flourished and resisted most attempts to limit Internet freedom by various governments, including at times the U.S.

Those who have been the leaders in the development and protection of the Internet and its freedom are convinced this move by the U.S., leading by example, will actually strengthen the role of democratic principles, and encourage liberty respecting countries to join non-profits and other legitimate stakeholders to resist authoritarian attempts to increase the role and control of governments .

It's worth noting that the only area in which the U.S. has significant jurisdiction relating to the Internet is in connection with a contract it has with the non-profit that manages the Internet addressing system so that no two websites share the same address.

The gradual transfer of remaining U.S. government stewardship of Internet addresses to the Internet's global multi-stakeholder community - a process being facilitated by ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) -- has been established U.S. policy since 1998, supported by successive administrations and the legislative branch. Reneging on this promise would seriously damage U.S. credibility worldwide and provide an excuse and rationale for Russia, China, and others to seek enhanced roles for their governments.

ICANN is an international group that facilitates multi-stakeholder Internet governance, and it is in a strong position to take the Internet to its next stage of growth and combat challenges by those who would seek to censor the Internet or exert more government control over content.

In response to the NTIA announcement, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who co-chairs the Internet Caucus, said that a "strong multi-stakeholder system free from the control of any government" is desirable, and that "innovators and entrepreneurs" are more trusted than government "bureaucrats" when it comes to ensuring an open, well-functioning global Internet.

But lawmakers who have not been as deeply involved in the details of Internet policy did not seem to understand why this was an adroit strategic move and instead called it a defeatist policy.

Sadly even former Wall Street Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz's opinion piece "America's Internet Surrender" (March 18) argues that the United States is making a big mistake by giving up its remaining control over Internet addresses to the global multi-stakeholder community. While we appreciate someone of Mr. Crovitz's stature supporting Internet freedom in general, it is short-sighted and unwise to think the U.S. can somehow prevail on this, alone, through sheer force of will.

My tech association has been a steadfast voice for Internet Freedom for many years and recently participated as part of the U.S. State Department delegation to the WCIT conference and helped resist efforts by countries like Russia and China who seeks greater international government regulation of the Internet through a U.N. group that Crovitz references in his editorial.

Having been on the ground fighting Internet surveillance and censorship for two decades, my tech trade association would be the first to join the chorus of those denouncing this U.S. move if there was truth to these arguments that it would lead to a less open Internet. But we are convinced it is the right move for the outcome that both those praising and criticizing the Commerce Department want.

The Internet faces unprecedented challenges and it faces them while the U.S. credibility is damaged in the wake of the Snowden revelations. Strengthening a multi-stakeholder group like ICANN, backed by like-minded Internet freedom allies, is likely a more effective way to prevent Internet restricting countries from succeeding. We do not -- and should not -- try to retain or expand the role of any governments seeking to control of this borderless communications tool.

The U.S. is much stronger by fighting alongside not just other democratic countries, but also with their NGOs and non-profits. We're going to need those numbers and breadth of support because we'll be up against any religious group, government or government faction around the world that has ever had a complaint about any Internet content or its inherent ability to facilitate free speech and strengthen democracies.