April 28, 2014

The Internet and Liberty

Net neutrality and ICANN are in the news. Why and what are they?

We believe that the Internet is perhaps the greatest vehicle for disseminating the ideas of Liberty ever made available to mankind. Perhaps we’re biased, being an Internet publication, but we don’t think we’re overstating things. That’s why Internet governance and regulation is so critical.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is for the third time taking aim at imposing what are known as “net neutrality” rules, which say that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the last round of regulations in January, saying the FCC had no authority to implement such regulations. In this latest round, to stay in line with the court’s ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is reportedly taking a different tack, rejecting the notion that regulators should redefine Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as “common carriers,” which then would subject them to FCC regulation.

And, reportedly, the unreleased new proposal isn’t pure net neutrality. One unnamed FCC official explained, “Broadband providers would be required to offer a baseline level of service to their subscribers, along with the ability to enter into individual negotiations with content providers. In all instances, broadband providers would need to act in a commercially reasonable manner subject to review on a case-by-case basis.” So an ISP such as Comcast can charge a content provider such as Netflix more money for used bandwidth just as the two companies recently agreed.

Wheeler dismisses criticism, however, calling reports that the agency is “gutting the Open Internet rule” “flat out wrong.” He maintained, “[B]ehavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted.” However, Reason magazine’s Peter Suderman looks at previous and seemingly continuing policy and says, “[T]he end result was that there was no real rule at all, just a vague sense that the Internet should be open which the FCC would enforce at its discretion. In other words, the FCC would pronounce itself the arbiter of what was and wasn’t reasonable, and then make determinations on a case-by-case basis. … What’s allowed and what’s not won’t depend on rules so much as the regulatory agency’s whims.” That’s a scary thought.

In other Internet news, the administration has been working toward turning over control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the primary domain authority, to the UN in 2015. ICANN is a U.S.-government-chartered nonprofit corporation established in 1998, and it manages the Internet’s domain name system (DNS). DNS is what causes typing “patriotpost.us” into your browser to bring up our website.

The plan to turn over control has been in the works since the 1990s. But The Wall Street Journal’s L. Gordon Crovitz writes, “Less than a month after announcing its plan to abandon U.S. protection of the open Internet in 2015, the White House has stepped back from the abyss. Following objections by Bill Clinton, a warning letter from 35 Republican senators, and critical congressional hearings, the administration now says the change won’t happen for years, if ever.” (We’d note that Clinton didn’t much like the Internet when it was helping his political opponents.) The administration may extend the contract for U.S. control for another four years.

Republicans want to know how it serves U.S. interests to cede control or whether control could be regained once given away. The problem is that U.S. credibility has been damaged by the NSA’s revealed activities, and other nations already want to exert more control over the Internet.

Maintaining U.S. control over a free and open Internet is important, but this particular method isn’t the only one, or even the most critical, for doing so. Russia and China already don’t need to have any say in regards to ICANN in order to create Great Firewalls and digital Iron Curtains. The Internet cannot be centrally controlled – that’s the point.

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