When the Obama administration announced that the U.S. would end its stewardship of the open Internet, critics warned that Russia and China would take advantage of the American surrender. We didn't anticipate that supposed friends of the multistakeholder system of self-governance would also be eager to grab control.
Last week France joined authoritarian regimes in seeking to replace the self-regulating Internet with a new system of one-country, one-vote control. More than 3,000 Internet specialists had gathered in London for the largest-ever meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann. China's minister of cyberspace affairs expounded on how different countries have "different modes and methods in Internet management" and welcomed America's giving up control, which "ushers in a new era of joint global Internet governance."
But France made the most headlines when it opposed an Icann plan to add .wine and .vin as new top-level Internet domains. France objected that the new suffixes would give makers of sparkling wine a way of passing plonk off as champagne.
Such disputes are common. Amazon lost a bid for a .Amazon domain because countries in the Amazon rain forest objected that there could be confusion. But when the French didn't get their way, they joined the authoritarian regimes in demanding an end to Internet self-regulation.
"Icann's procedures highlight its inability to take into account the legitimate concerns of states," read the French delegation's statement. It demanded Internet governance move to majority voting by governments. This means France could protect champagne—and other countries could censor websites around the world they don't like. So much for the multistakeholder system overseen by the U.S. that has left engineers and network operators free to build an open Internet without political pressure.
The French statement added: "Today Icann is not the appropriate forum to discuss Internet governance." That's awkward because President Obama delegated to Icann the creation of some new system of Internet oversight to replace U.S. control.
Opposition to the Obama abandonment is already building in Washington. This month the House passed a budget bill for the Commerce Department denying funds for any transfer of oversight away from the U.S. over Icann or the "root zone file" of global Internet addresses. Several Republican congressmen requested a Government Accountability Office report on what happens if the U.S. gives up its role as "an important backstop against foreign governments that would subvert the Internet."
Fadi Chehade, president of Icann, added to the worry. He assured lawmakers that U.S. law would continue to apply to Icann because it is a California-based institution. But he recently announced that Icann is "now an official NGO in Switzerland."
There's also new evidence that the Obama administration knew in March, when it announced the plan to give up control of the Internet, that this was far from the modest change in policy it had claimed.
Americans for Limited Government, a Washington advocacy group, filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any legal opinion by administration lawyers that the executive branch "has the legal authority to perform the transition" without congressional approval. This column had cited a Commerce spokesman saying the department has such an opinion, but refuses to share it.
The administration still hasn't disclosed any legal analysis, but it did release dozens of internal emails in response to the FOIA request. One quoted a Commerce official tasked with preparing a fact sheet on the change in policy warning her colleagues: "There are many questions that I imagine we would not want to advertise." Soon after the announcement ran into criticism, the White House office of legislative affairs ordered up a "mythbusters sheet," which tried to minimize the risks of the U.S. giving up control over the Internet.
This attempted spin in March failed to persuade people that the end of U.S. stewardship of the Internet was a trivial event. Since then, Bill Clinton, a majority of the House and dozens of senators have opposed the plan as the end for the open Internet.
The French power grab over the wine domains is a timely reminder that governments of all kinds would like to take control of the Internet if the U.S. lets them. The Obama administration should retract its plan to give up the open Internet before it causes any more damage