Allow me to tell you a story of innovation bordering on the miraculous, scientific stewardship driven by professionalism and shared values, and global leadership that qualifies as agape. And the possibility that all three could be headed for an intersection where the best intentions of good people could be in jeopardy.
Approximately 23 years ago you and I were given access to the Internet, an invention that a generation earlier would have been considered science fiction. Most experts define the headwaters of this seminal invention to be the digital protocol work of Bob Kahn and Vint Cert, both researchers for a division of the U. S. government. Subsequent to its commercialization, these two and a few other geniuses created a number of digital innovations that enabled the Internet and established it as an unprecedented resource.
First question: How did the rest of the world get the Internet?
Since it was initially considered part of national defense, all of this mad scientist stuff was funded by the government’s National Science Foundation and its various contractors. As it became evident that the Internet had commercial applications, the U.S. began sharing with the world what we knew and what we had. Nothing was withheld, enabling the Internet to rise in every corner of the world.
Second question: Who operates the Internet?
Think of it like a private toll road system. The U.S. government allowed private investment to create interconnected computer networks into a “backbone” system that, for a “toll,” delivers our digital business around the world using the protocols created by Kahn and Cerf, and later applications like browsers. Similarly, more private investment built out the infrastructure to transfer digital info from the backbone to last-mile users, like you and me, at the speed of light.
Third question: Who’s in charge of Internet governance?
Who runs the Internet is more complicated to explain, but it’s important because of that intersection thing mentioned earlier. In fact, the U.S. government allowed Kahn, Cerf and others to create governing bodies like the Internet Society, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architectural Board, and the World Wide Web Consortium, as organizations overseeing governance, access and standards for the global proliferation of the Internet. The Internet Society, which is the incorporated parent of two of these organizations, has 80,000 stakeholders and 110 chapters in 140 countries. That’s a lot of shared governance with one goal – a free and open Internet, sans politics.
The reason I’m telling you about the origin and governance of the Internet, is because a very important, last piece of U.S. direct influence of an Internet possession is about to be lost. The 18-year contract between the U.S. government and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) expires on September 30, 2016. When you create a new website it actually has two addresses: 1) a name, like abcsupply.com, for humans to remember and manage; and 2) a number value, like 18.104.22.168, for the way computers work. If you type either the words or numbers assigned to your website into a browser, the same page will be delivered.
According to NetChoice.org Executive Director, Steve DelBianco, in 2014 the Obama administration instructed ICANN to create, and transfer itself to, a “global, multi-stakeholder community.” On my radio program recently, DelBianco reported that this new body has been created and will take over on October 1. As part of the transitioning team, he says the new ICANN will be not unlike the other bodies mentioned earlier who’ve been governing the Internet for decades. That’s the good news.
Last question: If the Internet had been the property of Russia, China, or even France, would access and control of such a powerful resource have been so freely shared?
I think not. Consequently, in spite of my confidence in DelBianco and his colleagues, I’ve been very outspoken in the past three years against this plan for ICANN. I’m concerned about the loss of the last thread of direct influence by the U.S. government. I’m worried about what will happen if when we reach that intersection in the future, global, multi-stakeholder organizations, who’ve governed so dispassionately – without ideology – for decades, somehow become influenced or overridden by bad actor states, or possibly worse, the United Nations. The UN has a long history of coveting control of the Internet.
The United States is the most benevolent broker on the planet and has never let geopolitics influence Internet access or governance. With so many experts projecting that cyber-attacks pose a more imminent threat to our sovereignty than nuclear weapons, I fear the best intentioned Internet governors and investors may ultimately be no match for someone named Putin, Jinping, Khamenei, Jong-un, or their proxies.
Write this on a rock … Pray the world doesn’t regret America’s divesting of this last vestige of U.S. Internet ownership and control.