Americans paid little attention in September 2009 when the Obama administration relinquished the traditional U.S. role in supervising policy for the global Internet. The eyes glaze over, after all, at the profusion of acronyms and the allusions to obscure functions in uninteresting federal agencies. When the U.S. Department of Commerce terminated its exclusive policy relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the tech world was aflutter, but the event seemed to have no impact on the average American’s interactions with the Web.
That is going to change. ICANN is now supervised by an international body, the Government Advisory Council, in which the U.S. has no veto or even any institutionalized leadership role. We have voting representation in the body today, and some unique legacy influence, but there is no guarantee we will always have that. In the planned restructuring of ICANN’s governing board, the U.S. faces being relegated to a defined region of the globe in which we will be one of dozens of European and North American nations vying for the region’s five voting slots. Meanwhile, another newly defined “Arab States” region will bestow five voting slots on a bloc whose membership is, in effect, the Arab League.
The Arab League has already achieved policy triumphs in ICANN deliberations, as summarized in December at the Lawfare Project website. The record is unpromising: if Western governments can’t hang tough on some of the very basic concepts they have waffled on, there is reason to doubt their performance in other matters. We can have no doubts, however, about the likelihood of the Arab states arguing for censorship and illiberality in Internet policy.
Their region contains a number of the nations perennially identified by watchdog groups as the most hostile to Internet freedom, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Algeria, and Tunisia. (Reporters without Borders and the Global Integrity Report issue regular assessments.) One concern is the ongoing project of the Islamic nations to criminalize criticism of Islam, a key element of the bloc’s agenda in the Durban conference series sponsored by the UN. But blogger Daniel Greenfield also points out that domain names like JihadWatch.org and TheReligionofPeace.com could well be prohibited under Arab-state rules, along with their website content. Indeed, Israel’s national “top level domain” — .il — could be eliminated entirely by a voting bloc on the ICANN board.
I do not believe American citizens and others who prize freedom of expression will watch passively as such clamps are applied to the Internet. But in a practical sense, it may be much easier to start an alternative Internet — or a set of them — than to reclaim the U.S. leadership relinquished last year by President Obama. The technology certainly exists to do so. If domain names and Web content are indeed censored by an ICANN voting bloc, the concept of a truly alternative Internet will be increasingly obvious.
The associated national-policy issues are certainly interesting to speculate about. But of greater significance would be the suspension of the global-information idea. That idea always required unified leadership — and to some extent an arbitrary policy posture — if it was to retain any liberal characteristics. Administered instead by a council of coequal voters with conflicting concepts of information and intellectual freedom, the global-information idea cannot remain liberal.
Western flight from a censored Internet might well portend a hardening of global divisions based on incompatible views of reality. The echoes of the Cold War — and, indeed, of the 1930s — are unmistakable. I have no doubt that the citizens of the West can keep an intellectually free Internet available, nor do I doubt that the world’s peoples would prefer access to it over a censored Internet. Ultimately, any Arab-states takeover of ICANN is more likely to discourage current globalization trends than to confer on the Arab League a position of unchallenged informational power. But that unplanned consequence is a silver lining in what promises to be a dark cloud on the Internet’s horizon. There are policy battles ahead that will affect all of us.