Powerful countries that don’t cherish or respect freedom of speech seem to be jockeying for influence over Internet governance after President Barack Obama’s administration allowed a contract with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), an American corporation, to expire Oct. 1.
Under Obama’s leadership, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) transitioned stewardship of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS) to a global entity. DNS is the technical network that converts website address names into numbers, in essence, the “yellow pages” of web addresses.
Now Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to be pushing for leverage.
“The development of the Internet has posed new challenges to national sovereignty, security and development interests,” Xi said in a letter for the 1st World Internet Conference in 2014.
“The development of the Internet knows no international boundaries. The sound use, development and governance of the Internet thus calls for closer cooperation,” Xi said at the 3rd World Internet Conference roughly a week ago, according to Reuters.
Xi spoke in general of different states respecting one another’s “cyber sovereignty.”
Liu Yunshan, China’s propaganda chief and member of the Communist Party’s leading Politburo Standing Committee, also stressed that different countries must focus on congruence.
“There can’t be national security for one country while there is insecurity in another. (Countries) can’t seek their own so-called ‘absolute security’ while sacrificing the security of another country,” Liu told Reuters.
With its rather foreboding history of censorship and lack of regard for free speech rights, China having a degree of control over the Internet is a potentially unsettling prospect.
When it comes to Internet governance, China prioritizes national sovereignty, social order and national security first — not freedom of speech like the U.S. Constitution promises and protects, as Xi explained at the 2nd World Internet Conference.
Out of 65 analyzed countries, China was ranked the worst abuser of Internet freedom in 2016, according to a recent report released by Freedom House, a nonprofit research institute.
“The Chinese government’s crackdown on free expression under President Xi Jinping’s ‘information security’ policy is taking its toll on the digital activists who have traditionally fought back against censorship and surveillance,” the official assessment reads.
China will have an inherently big seat at the table during the “multi-stakeholder” processes organized by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is the organization that delves out the contracts for DNS control.
And China isn’t the only powerful country with a poor record of protecting Internet freedom to likely have influence.
Russia recently blocked the social networking website LinkedIn because the company did not handover the private data of users within the country. Russia is ranked 52nd in Freedom House’s evaluation.
Andrey Bubeyev, a mechanical engineer, was sentenced to two years in prison in May for publishing content that depicted the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula as part of Ukraine on a social network site, according to the Freedom House report, which lists a number of other state-imposed punishments that are disproportionate relative to other nations.
“Trade sanctions against countries that censor websites, like Russia, could be a useful tool,” Shane Tews, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy, told The Daily Caller News Foundation (TheDCNF).
Tews, though, highlighted the importance of trying to keep politics and technical functions separate.
“Only by committing to the separation of architecture and politics can we shield the Domain Name System (DNS) from being a proxy fight for other political games,” Tews explained in TechPolicyDaily.
Hopefully a strategy like this works, because as Tews stressed, there’s no way of getting the contract between ICANN and IANA back. “We just have to hope,” she said.
Jeff Baron is a web pioneer who owned a domain name registrar business accredited by ICANN and given responsibility to secure domain name registrations for businesses and consumers. His business operated DNS servers for roughly one million domain names with 50 million monthly visitors, but a judge essentially allowed ICANN to give his registry to China without his consent or any financial compensation. (RELATED: Dallas Judges Shred Constitution, Steal Millions)
In an exclusive interview with TheDCNF, Baron described why the transition is becoming even more overtly dangerous.
“Currently, a foreign government does not have the power to ubiquitously censor the Internet in the United States. That is because such censorship requires the cooperation of either the United States government or key United States companies,” Baron explained. “However, if a government or non-state actor were to obtain control of the Internet’s technical infrastructure, it would be able to engage in global censorship and mass propaganda, among other transgressions.”
Baron details the widespread impacts of the fast-developing international governance model on the Internet. “ICANN wields vast power and its policies and actions can have a dramatic impact on the exchange of information, the global economy and national security,” Baron said. “In the wrong hands, ICANN could be used as a weapon to dictate who has access to the Internet.”
Baron fears that if a hostile government were able to gain control of the DNS, it could disable “.gov” and “.mil” domain names, which are crucial for national security.
He also referenced the Internet’s direct influence on the news people receive, as well commercial Internet activities, which Baron says account for $5 trillion globally every year.
Fears like those voiced by Baron are not unfounded, especially after someone successfully shut down large portions of the Internet for people in Northeast America in October.
Such attacks on DNS could become a serious and constant problem for America’s Internet infrastructure now that control has essentially been “Balkanized.”
Baron is currently attempting to voice his concerns with President-elect Donald Trump through his own Internet Freedom Project (IFP). The IFP is advocating a “Make the Internet American again” plank to be added to the already high-impact list of new foreign policy pledges.
If collusion and corruption with foreign actors to destroy an American Internet business like Baron’s with over 1 million domain names and 50 million unique visitors per month can occur while the Internet is ‘American,’ imagine what is possible now, Baron cautions, observing that “putting the Internet into the hands of a foreign-controlled body could lead to the theft of American Internet real estate and to censorship.”
“I hope President-elect Trump realizes this and will take steps to repatriate the Internet, much like we take steps to guard our other national treasures,” Baron concludes.
As America loses influence over a large portion of the Internet, the nation’s founding principles may be less effective in protecting the free and open exchange of information online.
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