In Monday's Wall Street Journal, columnist Gordon Crovitz sounds an urgent warning about President Obama's plans, during his final months in office, to fundamentally transform the internet. It's an intricate tale, but the bottom line is that unless Congress acts fast, the World Wide Web looks likely to end up under control of the UN.
That would be the same UN that serves as a global clubhouse for despotic regimes that like to wield censorship as a basic tool of power. Russia and China occupy two of the five veto-wielding permanent seats on the UN Security Council. Iran since 2012 has presided over one of the largest voting blocs in the 193-member General Assembly, the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement. Among the current members of the Human Rights Council are Venezuela, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia — where blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, for blog posts the Saudi government considered insulting to Islam.
We're talking here about the same UN which for generations has proven incorrigibly corrupt, opaque and inept at managing almost anything except its own apparently endless expansion and self-serving overreach. This is the UN of the Oil-for-Food worldwide web of kickbacks; the UN of the evidently chronic problem of peacekeepers raping minors they are sent to protect; the UN that can't manage to adequately audit its own books, and offers its top officials an "ethics" program of financial disclosure under which they are entitled to opt out of disclosing anything whatsoever to the public.
This is the UN where a recent president of the General Assembly, John Ashe, died this June in an accident that reportedly entailed a barbell falling on his neck, while he was awaiting trial on fraud charges in the Southern District of New York — accused by federal authorities of having turned his UN position into a "platform for profit."
So, how might this entrancing organization, the UN, end up controlling the internet? Crovitz in his Journal column explains that Obama's administration is about to give up the U.S. government's longstanding contract with Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which, as a monopoly, operates "the entire World Wide Web root zone."
If that sounds like a good idea, think again. This is not a case of Obama having some 11th-hour 180-degree conversion to the virtues of minimalist government. It works out to the very opposite. Here's a link, again, to Crovitz's column on "An Internet Giveaway to the UN." Crovtz explains that as a contractor under government control, Icann enjoys an exemption from antitrust rules. When the contract expires, the exemption goes away, unless Icann can hook up with another "governmental group" so as to "keep its antitrust exemption." What "governmental group" might that be? Well, some of the worst elements of the UN have already reached out. Crovitz writes:
Authoritarian regimes have already proposed Icann become part of the U.N. to make it easier for them to censor the internet globally. So much for the Obama pledge that the U.S. would never be replaced by a “government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution."
This is far from the first time the UN has cast a covetous eye at the internet. For years, there have been UN proposals, shindigs and summits looking for ways to regulate and tax the Web. Recall, as one example among many, the 2012 UN jamboree in Dubai. Or 2007 in Rio. Or the 2009 Internet Governance Forum gathering in Egypt, inspired by the 2005 conference of wannabe-be web commissars in Tunis.
All that hoopla pales next to the alarming reality of Obama's plan to cut loose Icann this fall, and let the economic and political currents carry it straight into the waiting clutches of the United Nations. Crovitz notes that the Obama administration, while preparing to drop Icann's contract, has already "stopped actively overseeing the group," with dismal results inside Icann itself. Crovitz concludes, "The only thing worse than a monopoly overseen by the U.S. government is a monopoly overseen by no one — or by a Web-censoring U.N."
Lest that sound hopeless, Crovitz adds: "Congress still has time to extend its ban on the Obama administration giving up protection of the internet." But not a lot of time. The deadline is Sept. 30th.