September 18, 2014 | Commentary on Regulation, Internet And Technology

Should Governments Control the Internet?

The Internet is now critical to the U.S. economy. A recent Hudson Institute analysis estimated that the information, communications, and technology sector accounted for nearly 10 percent of the total growth of the U.S. economy from 2002 to 2007 – in other words, the sector was responsible for more than $340 billion of the $4.6 trillion increase in real gross output of the U.S. economy over that period. Small wonder, then, that Congress has taken a keen interest in the Commerce Department's March 14 announcement that it intends to end its current supervisory role over ICANN -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- and facilitate the transition to a new, private-sector led, bottom-up system under which ICANN will operate. Most importantly, the U.S. will no longer oversee the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which is responsible for the global coordination of the domain-name system -- the system that, for example, ties "http://www.realclearpolicy.com" to this site.

But some of ICANN's recent actions have raised concerns about the corporation's commitment to private-sector control. Last month, ICANN announced a plan to change its bylaws to require its board to accept recommendations from governments, which act through a "Government Advisory Committee" or GAC. Under the proposal, ICANN's board of directors would be required to adopt advice from the committee unless two-thirds of the board members voted against it.

Obviously, the proposed change would enhance the power of governments, many of which are hostile to an open and free Internet, within ICANN. Therefore, it poses a threat to Internet security, stability, and openness. Here are three more specific reasons to reject it.

Wrongful Equation of GAC Advice to Broader Stakeholder Recommendations: Currently, the board can reject GAC advice by a simple majority vote. Supporters of the proposal to increase the threshold to reject GAC advice to a two-thirds majority note that ICANN bylaws currently give favored status to some recommendations from the GNSO Council, which represents a broad group of stakeholders, provided that they are passed by a supermajority.

Governments believe that their advice should be no less privileged than that of the GNSO, but there are good reasons to give GNSO a higher standing. Advice from the GNSO Council is the product of bottom-up development from multiple stakeholders. The vetting done during that process bestows a presumption of legitimacy on the resulting recommendation. By contrast, GAC advice is the product of hierarchical, top-down direction from governments alone, some of which do not even democratically represent their own citizens.

To be sure, governments are also constituents of ICANN. If they were to participate in the development of policy through the GNSO structure, their input would have the imprimatur of the multi-stakeholder process. But standing alone, GAC advice does not have such an imprimatur of legitimacy. Essentially an effort to have a last-word veto, the GAC proposal runs counter to ICANN's commitment to a multi-stakeholder decision-making process.

Risk of GAC Control of ICANN: By raising the threshold for rejecting GAC advice, the proposal would increase the power of governments in determining Internet policy. Since the establishment of ICANN, the U.S. government's stated goal has been to minimize the role of governments in managing the Internet. Government advice is important, as is the advice of other constituents. But the power of governments is such that care must be taken that they not swamp input from other constituencies.

Supporters of the rule change argue that the GAC's role would still be limited, since its recommendations must be adopted by a "consensus" of governments, which is defined in the GAC operating principles as "the practice of adopting decisions by general agreement in the absence of any formal objection." But this requirement could be changed by a majority vote in the GAC. In fact, some governments have already proposed that the consensus requirement be changed so that GAC decisions can be adopted by majority vote. It is possible, perhaps likely, that in the near future a majority of countries will modify the current operating procedures and then, under the new procedures, push through advice from the GAC that is contrary to the broader interests of the Internet community. Raising the bar for rejecting GAC advice, as the proposed change would do, could allow authoritarian governments to dominate ICANN as they dominate other international organizations, such as the U.N. General Assembly.

Inconsistency With the U.S.'s Goals in Turning Over the Management of the Domain-Name System: The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the main U.S. government participant ICANN activities, has set forth a number of conditions for the impending transition, the clearest of which is that the U.S. will "not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution." The reason for this position is clear: Enhancing the power of governments, many of which are hostile to an open and free Internet, would threaten the security, stability, and openness of the Internet. Instead of moving away from governmental control as the U.S. government has requested, the proposed bylaw change would enhance the authority of governments within ICANN by making it more difficult for the board to reject GAC advice.

The ICANN board should oppose any change to its bylaws that would erode its independence and increase governmental influence in its operations. If the board does adopt the proposed change, the U.S. government should promptly reevaluate its conclusion that ICANN "has matured as an organization and has taken important steps to improve its accountability and transparency" and can be trusted with coordination of the Internet's domain-name system absent U.S. supervision.

 - Paul Rosenzweig is a visiting fellow in the Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.

 - Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs in Heritage's Thatcher Center for Freedom.

 - James L. Gattuso is senior research fellow for regulatory policy in Heritage's Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

About the Author

Paul Rosenzweig
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

James L. Gattuso Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Originally appeared in Real Clear Policy