Today, Americans observe Independence Day, in which we celebrate not just our separation from King George and Great Britain, but the affirmation of what Jefferson called our “unalienable rights.”
Foremost among these is freedom of expression. In the 238 years since, this right—enshrined as the First Amendment—has become a cornerstone of our constitutional system.
Not so the rest of the world.
From China to Saudi Arabia to Russia, censorship is a fact of life. But even Europe, which broadly shares our democratic ideals, relegates free speech to the back row. In fact, the European version of the Bill of Rights—the “Charter of Fundamental Rights”—doesn’t get around to guaranteeing freedom of expression until Article 11, and even then it is subject to 11 exceptions.
Nowhere is this freedom gap more evident than in government policies toward the Internet.
Internet freedom is an unknown concept in much of the world, with China maintaining its “great firewall” against unapproved content, Turkey blocking Facebook and Egypt shutting down access to the web entirely, for a time. And in Europe, a new privacy mandate is suppressing speech in the name of privacy, banning search engines from even providing a link to supposedly “irrelevant” content that an individual might find embarrassing.
This is what makes the debate over the future of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers)—the closest thing the Internet has to an international governing body—so important.
The job of ICANN, a private company formed by the U.S. government, is straightforward: Keep the Internet’s address book, defining and allocating the hodge-podge of domain names that can be used.
Done right, it is a technical, rather boring, task. And, operating under light-handed regulation from the U.S. Department of Commerce, it has been. But the Commerce Department has announced it soon will quit its role, fulfilling a long-standing pledge to fully privatize the system.
The problem is that the U.S. government’s exit will create a vacuum in Internet governance that governments unfriendly to Internet freedom would be eager to fill.
Only last month, France called for direct oversight of the system by national governments on a one-country-one-vote basis. Although ICANN does not have the power to directly limit speech globally, expression could be hindered in more subtle ways. It could, for instance, refuse to allow specific domain names, such as “.falungong” or “.islam” to be used. And the governance structures could become a foot in the door for more extensive controls. To prevent this, the U.S. must insist on strict safeguards that ensure ICANN will operate as an independent entity, accountable to its users, not to governments.
The battle over ICANN hardly compares to the events of 1776. No midnight rides or dumped tea are to be expected. But it is key to the bigger struggle over Internet freedom and to the legacy of liberty left to us by the framers of the Declaration signed on July 4.