The Department of Commerce has announced that it will soon abdicate its responsibility for maintaining the internet's Domain Name System, the directory that allows translation of a plain English (or Russian, or Turkish) term like popehat.com into the string of numbers and periods that are this site's actual address. DNS is the internet's central nervous system, to analogize crudely. If a site is removed from DNS, it may as well no longer exist.
The goal, we're told, is to spread governance of the internet from a United States agency to set of "stakeholders" from across the "global internet community." And that's what should worry everyone in the "global internet community" who is concerned with free speech. Unlike the Department of Commerce, the "global internet community" and its "stakeholders" are not constrained from abridging the freedom of speech.
Readers may recall the case of American talk radio host Glenn Beck, who in 2009 sued the owner of the parodic website GlennBeckRapedAndMurderedAYoungGirlIn1990.com, in the World Internet Property Organization (a United Nations body), arguing that the site's name was defamatory, and that it infringed Beck's trademark in the name "Glenn Beck." (The parody countered Beck's style of argument in which he demands opponents prove a negative: "Barack Obama must prove he wasn't in Indonesia on August 4, 1961!") How do we know Glenn Beck didn't rape and murder a young girl in 1990, after all? Beck hasn't proven he didn't. We have only his word to rely upon. The World Internet Property Organization, to its credit and thanks to the commendable advocacy of defense attorney Marc Randazza, denied Beck's claims, finding the assertion contained in the site's name to be an obvious parody that only a dipshit would credit as true.
What's telling about the Beck case is that Beck, for all his professed faith in the United States Constitution, chose not to file his claim in an American court. Beck certainly could have done so: the defendant, like Beck, was an American citizen and subject to the jurisdiction of United States courts. But the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides broad protections to free speech, some of the broadest in the world, constraining courts and government agencies alike from infringing speech. And a website's name, just like its text, is speech.
No, Beck, or his attorneys, assumed he'd get better treatment from a United Nations agency in his efforts to quash free speech than he'd get in an American court. And for good reason: United Nations agencies are not constrained by the First Amendment. And so, coming back round to the "stakeholders" of the "global internet community," to what legal constraints will they be subject? And to whom will they answer? The Constitution of the People's Republic of China, for instance, promises that:
Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration. … Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.
Under the new internet order, Sina Weibo is undoubtedly a major "global stakeholder" in the internet. Does anyone believe that a representative of Sina Weibo, which already censors its users at the behest of its government, would not vote to obliterate a website glorifying Tank Man?
Of course China is not the only global stakeholder. There are plenty of European nations which also have a stake in the internet, such as the Russian Federation. Perhaps the most distinguished Russian holding a stake in the internet is Evgeny Kaspersky, the famed security expert, whose products are used worldwide. Another famed Russian on the internet is Garry Kasparov, grandmaster of chess and political dissident. For all of Kaspersky's integrity, does anyone doubt that if Kasparov created a website parodying Vladimir Putin, perhaps one called VladimirPutinOrderedTheMurderOfAnnaPolitkovskaya.com, Kaspersky would face intense pressure to vote that it be deleted as defamatory, an offense against the majesty of the Soviet Union Russian Federation?
Of course there are plenty of enlightened non-European countries whose citizens are global stakeholders, such as Thailand. Guarantors of international human rights, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.
The Department of Commerce assures us that only private global stakeholders will be nominated to hold a stake in tomorrow's internet, and therefore to make decisions on who (if anyone) gets to have domains ending in suffixes such as .bible or .gay or .wine. We're assured that the new regime will be run much along the lines of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (which coincidentally is holding its annual meeting for 2014 in Istanbul). But each of those stakeholders is, at least until we have anarchist floating cities, also a stakeholder in some government or state. In a lot of those states, the government considers itself a "stakeholder" in its citizens, who'll know doubt vote accordingly. And while Commerce promises us that it won't support government involvement in the new DNS regime, once control has passed beyond Commerce, who's to say conditions won't change?
None of this is to suggest that the United States is somehow "deserving" of internet governance, that the internet is American property, or the American government's hands are clean. They're not. I could be reasonably content with an internet whose administration was controlled by other constitutional democracies, such as Australia, Costa Rica, Japan, or even the United Kingdom.
But it won't be. We've seen the others, and they're worse. The system isn't broken, and at least now there are some free speech constraints on the entity ultimately responsible for global DNS.
If you care about free speech on the global internet, not just your provincial American corner of it, consider writing or calling your Congressman and Senators, and asking them to assert their authority against this ill-advised decision.