Opinion: US Oversight of the Internet

By John MacWilliams | August 19, 2015

As US politicians debate the future of the Internet, Bishop & Associates’ John MacWilliams makes the case for leaving oversight in the hands of the US.


laptop-globeThe World Wide Web evolved out of DARPA Net in the late 1980s, emerging from an NSF/university technology dotcom system, and then as an open Internet in the early ‘90s.

I knew some of the players back then, including Lance Glasser at DARPA and Dr. Will Stackhouse of the USAF. Some were avid promoters; others were in positions of power and technical influence in academia and government. Not to offend Vinton Cerf or anyone else, but there were a lot of important players including, some say, former Vice President Al Gore when he was in the Senate.

The subject was even intertwined with early recognition of the growing offshore manufacturing threat, which today has become a way of life in the US electronics industry. It was thought an American Internet could help defend US manufacturing. Will Stackhouse was a champion of this aspect, giving many motivational speeches on US manufacturing. (And, Will, if you are reading this, remember when you and I went to the Steelworkers Union Hall in Steelton, Pa., and you gave your rousing speech? I even remember your “canned tomatoes.” At the time I felt like a little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. That was one of my better intuitions.)

At that time, I worked for AMP and was given some leeway to circulate in Washington at DARPA, IEEE, Council on Competitiveness, National Labs, and the early National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative.

Anyway, like most things American, the Internet, under guidance from the Department of Commerce (DOC) and its independent technical Internet workings contractor, ICANN, went global. It became the free, open, and global Internet of today, kept humming by its US and international stakeholders. Most of its users don’t think of it as an American institution. It’s not perfect, but it IS the most important, infinitely capable productivity and communication tool the world has ever seen.

Some objections to the US-controlled Internet have come from countries that like to limit what people read and see. There is also grumbling about “objectionable content” such as pornography, hate speech, viruses, and the explosion of Internet hacking. So there are both legitimate and darker concerns about a free Internet, including proposed taxation and, alternatively, making it forever free but more secure.

Amidst these objections, President Obama has signaled executive action to have the US give up control of the Internet to an international body. ICANN, at least for now, would retain its names-and-numbers management role, but other countries would have a say in what goes on. There is some censorship now by foreign countries in their own territories, but they can’t affect global Web access – other than threatening or jailing its users.

The US Administration’s action would change the rules, essentially giving other countries the ability to have objectionable content censored globally. France has moved to internationally block web sites that contain damaging information about people. Russia and others have taken note. Under new rules proposed by the Administration, it would require an international consensus, not one country as now, to stop this censorship. But ICANN seems in favor of becoming an arm of an international body, as it would give it a larger pie and a new challenge, hopefully while retaining its management control well into the future. (It already has carte blanche control, with no interference from the DOC.) Once untethered though, the US would not be able to stop changes such as countries that plan to move from an advisory role to a controlling role in ICANN operations.

In the US, some US voters, most Republicans in Congress, and many in the nation’s think tanks are against giving up US control – or at least say it must be approved by Congress before a government asset can be divested. Since the American people “own it,” there could be a ballot on the 2016 election, but no one in Washington has seriously proposed that. The date of departure was pushed back two years by the US House of Representatives in July.* However, President Obama says he will act unilaterally on or before July 2016 – prior to leaving office, forcing another showdown with Congress.

So, there is a battle going on, which could lead to a precipice. Currently, Ted Cruz, a Republican Senator from Texas and candidate for the Republican nomination for president, is bucking this transfer. Leadership in his party does not want this to contribute to a government shutdown in upcoming budget negotiations and would appear to sacrifice it on the altar of all-knowing, never-unpaid government.

The ultimate decision will affect all of us, domestic and international, whether for or against. But unlike many other government actions, once divested, the US will never get back control nor be able to protect free speech. Now is the time for US voters to express their views to their representatives. Here are lists of contacts in the House and Senate.

*Just this week, the Department of Commerce has decided to delay action on this issue until next year or beyond.

John MacWilliams
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