America is about to end its stewardship over the internet.

For all its controversy, a renewed domestic focus at least means that the resources America has for decades sent overseas can be used to make the lives of the American people better, instead of being poured into the stratosphere as military aid.  But our benefits may come at the expense of the freedom of the people of the rest of the world.

Take, for example, America’s gradual relinquishment of control over the internet.  Last week, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit private organization under contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce, announced the launch of a global multistakeholder accountability process “to transition the role of the United States Government relating to the Internet’s unique identifiers system.”  By 2015, the controlling stake the U.S. Government has had in the process should come to an end.

“We are inviting governments, the private sector, civil society, and other Internet organizations from the whole world to join us in developing this transition process,” said Fadi Chehadé, ICANN‘s President.  “All stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and governance of this global resource as equal partners.”

The Russian and Chinese governments are chomping at the chance to transfer control of domain names from the United States to the United Nations, where their veto means free reign for their governments. Brendan Greeley’s recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek makes it easy to see why such a seemingly trivial point of power really matters:

Even with U.S. control, Icann has had to bow to some of stakeholder demands of sovereign countries. If you want a domain name in Cyrillic, for example, you have to go through one of several countries that use the Cyrillic script. Not too hard for Russia to exercise either sovereignty or diplomatic muscle to prevent Russian speakers from easily finding undesired domains.

Between Russia’s armed invasion of the Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s personal theft of Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring, such fears are well founded.  The Washington Post recently published a great piece on how the Kremlin censors the internet for Russian citizens.

Of course you can trust me with the internet.
Of course you can trust me.

Jack London imagined tyranny as an iron heel, but the Chinese government knows enough to dress strict state control in cuddlier clothes.

Jingjing
Meet Chacha and Jingjing – your friends in the digital age!

In 2007, Beijing police announced that they would start patrolling the Internet using animated police officers that would pop up on a user’s browser and cross the screen while warning them to stay away from illegal content.  The idea is absurd to the point where it could only come from a government without respect for individual freedom.

"Say no to rude and foul language, encourage peaceful and positive attitude."
“Say no to rude and foul language, encourage peaceful and positive attitude.”

It looks like Chacha and Jingjing didn’t last for the long haul, but they were a clumsy symbol of things to come.  CNN reported last year that China has roughly two million people involved in policing public opinion online for the 1.3 billion people of China.

“You should not spread antisocial material on the Internet” above, and “Please come with me because you published materials to harm the unity of the nation” below.

For all the faults of our government, and for all the revelations of whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the First Amendment and centuries of legal precedent still count for a lot. The relatively benign stewardship of the Internet by the U.S. Government may yet prove to have been the least bad option in a world of reinvigorated autocracy.

As Greeley puts it, the internet won’t end next year, but we will eventually see it start to change for the worse for the people of the rest of the world.  Today’s Russia and China just shouldn’t have a seat at this kind of table – not while Russia is more dangerous for journalists today than it was in the Cold War, and not while Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and YouTube are banned for the one-fifth of humanity that lives in China. Our stewardship of a mostly free Internet was mostly for their own good – and that’s certainly an argument that an autocrat could relate to.

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