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– Internet Take Over?
Michael O'Rielly: Foreign
governments want control over the internet
by Michael O'Rielly
An ongoing, global debate has been swirling for years over whether the
future of the internet — the greatest man-made technology of our
lifetimes — should be determined by governments or the internet
community itself. More succinctly, the central question has been whom do
we trust deciding how the internet works and what content should be
available: authoritarian governments of the world pursuing international
regulation, or internet companies and users favoring a wide-open
For most people, it’s like asking, calories aside, would you rather eat
a bushel of kale or big bowl of ice cream. And yet, due to the American
government’s recent decision to step away from internet governance, the
rest of the world feels emboldened to pursue its internet regulatory
The internet flourished for years under a governance structure known as
a multi-stakeholder model, whereby private sector companies, academia
and users form solutions to internet technical issues and policies. This
also included the U.S. government having a very limited oversight role
via a contractual relationship with the Internet Corporation for
Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN,) the group that hands out domain
Notwithstanding the amazing innovation and capabilities brought forth
during this arrangement, it was routinely criticized by so-called
experts who argued that even a minimalist U.S. government role, designed
to preserve internet freedom, was upsetting to foreign nations, and
therefore no longer sustainable in the global community.
Instead, they said that if the U.S. terminated involvement in ICANN and
ceded our sound principles a bit, authoritarian governments would back
off their continued push for more internet government regulation and
control. These views eventually won the day, leading to the U.S.
government terminating its ICANN relationship in October 2016.
At the time, those who challenged the ICANN deal — of which I was one —
were in favor of a true multi-stakeholder approach, not the questionable
one being adopted. We argued that there were insufficient mechanisms to
prevent authoritarian governments from filling the void in ICANN when
the U.S. relinquished its former role.
Equally important, every indication cried out that the transition was
being rushed, and highly unlikely to dissuade the efforts of other
governments seeking more control over the internet in other settings.
Since a reconstituted ICANN was approved, it only seems appropriate to
assess whether the appeasement strategy worked. Not shockingly, it
doesn’t seem to have done so. Foreign governments have, in fact, renewed
their disturbing calls for government control of the internet via a
number of forums, such as the United Nations.
Consider just three recent instances:
At the end of October, member states at the World Telecommunication
Standardization Assembly (WTSA-16) in Tunisia, held by the UN’s
International Telecommunication Union (ITU), took the unnecessary and
inappropriate step of seeking to set technical standards for the
Internet of Things. Not only did this inject foreign governments where
they didn’t belong (i.e., key internet standards and governance
matters,) but some members decided to promote a specific technology —
Digital Object Architecture — that could be used to register devices and
users in centralized databases, thereby making fees and taxes and even
government surveillance much easier.
In early March, China released a paper with much fanfare titled
“International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace” that includes its
detailed road map for internet rules and principles within the framework
of the United Nations. This is the same government that limits the
rights of its citizens on the internet, such that they cannot discuss
anything that would be considered “subverting state power and
jeopardizing national unification; damaging state honor and interests,”
among others. It’s also the place mandating every internet activity be
availed for review by thousands of human “fact checkers.”
Finally, at ITU study meetings in April, Russia and some African
countries put forth a recommendation to define and potentially regulate
over-the-top (OTT) content providers. Presented as a means to encourage
competition, innovation and investment, it really was a veiled attempt
to expand ITU jurisdiction to the internet, as well as to get its grips
into popular consumer uses, such as Netflix, Skype, and WhatsApp.
In the short time since ICANN was transitioned to its new structure,
there have been multiple plans and proposals by governments to directly
involve UN entities in internet governance. It is fair to say that we
got the short end of the stick, as our fancy strategy didn’t appease
Going forward, the United States should learn from the ICANN aftermath
and redouble our efforts to quash continuous and systemic assaults on
the internet by foreign governments, using all appropriate means.
Michael O’Rielly is a commissioner of the Federal Communications