By L. Gordon Crovitz
The Obama administration still doesn't seem to understand the whirlwind it reaped with its decision to give up stewardship of the open Internet. The first Internet governance conference since that surprise March announcement was held last week. The State Department issued a statement before the conference urging everyone to avoid the issue: "We would discourage meeting participants from debating the reach or limitations of state sovereignty in Internet policy."
But deciding who gets to govern the Internet was precisely why many attendees from 80 countries came to last week's NetMundial conference in Brazil.
The host country's leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, opened the conference by declaring: "The participation of governments should occur with equality so that no country has more weight than others." The Russian representative objected to "the control of one government," calling for the United Nations to decide "international norms and other standards on Internet governance." Last week Vladimir Putin called the Internet a "CIA project" and said "we must purposefully fight for our interests."
Authoritarian regimes want to control the Internet to preserve their power. "National sovereignty should rule Internet policy and governance," the Chinese representative said. "Each government should build its own infrastructure, undertake its own governance and enforce its own laws." The Saudi Arabian delegate said: "International public policy in regard to the Internet is the right of governments and that public policy should be developed by all governments on an equal footing."
Even nominal supporters of the existing multi-stakeholder model embraced the end of Internet self-governance. The delegate from India declared a greater role for the world's governments "an imperative that can't be ignored." Neelie Kroes of the European Commission said: "The Internet is now a global resource demanding global governance."
Philip Corwin, a U.S. lawyer who represents Internet companies, noted that 27 of the first 30 speakers at NetMundial were from governments or U.N. agencies—at a "meeting supposedly conceived to strengthen the private-sector-led multi-stakeholder, consensus-based policy-making model."
The conference produced a "consensus" document that asserts: "The respective roles and responsibilities of stakeholders should be interpreted in a flexible manner with reference to the issue under discussion." Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister, offered this translation: "Governments are more equal than other stakeholders when it comes to policy."
The Internet ran smoothly for 25 years because the U.S. ensured that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, known as Icann, operated without government interference. Authoritarian regimes can censor the Internet in their own countries and jail their bloggers, but until now had no way to get control over the root zone filenames and addresses of the global Internet. Handing over control could allow them to undermine the open Internet globally, including Americans' access to U.S. websites.
Some open-Internet advocacy groups realize it is light-handed U.S. control that has allowed what political theorists would call the "ordered liberty" of Internet self-governance. "Part of the strength of the Internet over the last couple of decades has been that the technical aspects have not had direct political or government interference," Thomas Hughes of the human-rights group Article 19 told the BBC.
Michael Daniel, special assistant to President Obama, declared without apparent irony that "from the U.S. perspective, NetMundial was a huge success." But it's no accomplishment when countries that have long sought power over the Internet embrace the U.S. invitation for them to seize it.
The NetMundial conference was politicized from the start. It was held in Brazil as a favor to President Rousseff after she objected when news broke that the National Security Agency had listened in on her communications. But Sweden's Mr. Bildt pointed out at the conference that "the issue of surveillance in no way relates to the issues of the governance of the net." He added: "I'm stressing this point because sometimes the debate on surveillance is used as an argument to change the governance of the net."
Under bipartisan pressure in Washington, the Obama administration was forced to backtrack during congressional hearings earlier this month. Officials testified they won't necessarily stick to their original September 2015 date for giving up protection of the Internet. Officials said the issue could be pushed to 2019 and thus decided by the next president. Many in Congress want an up-or-down vote on ending U.S. control of the Internet, knowing lawmakers would reject the idea.
President Obama should revoke the plan to abandon the open Internet. The ugly spectacle of countries jockeying to control the Internet is a timely reminder of why the U.S. should never give them the chance.