One would think that if there is any aspect of Internet policy that libertarians could agree on, it would be that the government should not be in control of basic internet infrastructure. So why are Tech Freedom and a few other so-called “liberty” groups making a big fuss about the plan to complete the privatization of ICANN? The IANA transition, as it has become known, would set the domain name system root, IP addressing and Internet protocol parameter registries free of direct governmental control, and make those aspects of the Internet transnational and self-governing.
Yet, the same groups that have informed us that net neutrality is the end of Internet freedom because it would have a government agency indirectly regulating discriminatory practices by private sector ISPs, are now trying to tell us that retaining direct U.S. government regulation of the content of the domain name system root, and indirect control of the domain name industry and IP addressing via a contract with ICANN, is essential to the maintenance of global Internet freedom. It’s insane.
One mundane explanation is that TechFreedom, which is known for responding eagerly to anyone offering them a check, has found some funding source that doesn’t like the IANA transition and has, in the spirit of a true political entrepreneur, taken up the challenge of trying to twist, turn and spin freedom rhetoric into some rationalization for opposing the transition. But that doesn’t explain the opposition of Senators Cruz and other conservatives who feign a concern for Internet freedom. No, I think this split represents something bigger. At bottom, it’s a debate about the role of nation-states in Internet governance and the state’s role in preserving freedom.
In this regard it would be good to review my May 2016 blog post at the Internet Governance Project, which smashes the myths being asserted about the US government’s role in ICANN. In it, I show that NTIA’s control of ICANN has never been used to protect Internet freedom, but has been used multiple times to limit or attack it. I show that the US control of the DNS root was never put into place to “protect Internet freedom,” but was established for other reasons, and that the US explicitly rejected putting a free expression clause in ICANN’s constitution. I show that the new ICANN Articles of Incorporation created as part of the transition contain good mission limitations and protections against content regulation by ICANN. Finally, I argued that in the real world of international relations (as opposed to the unilateralist fantasies of conservative nationalists) the privileged US role is a magnet for other governments, inviting them to push for control, rather than a bulwark against it.
Another libertarian tech policy analyst, Eli Dourado, has also argued that going ahead with the IANA transition is a ‘no-brainer.’
Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Strickling’s speech at the US Internet Governance Forum last month goes through the FUD being advanced by TechFreedom and the nationalist Republicans one by one. Among other points, he contends that if the U.S. tries to retain control, Internet infrastructure will become increasingly politicized as rival states, such as China, Russia and Iran, argue for a sovereignty-based model and try to get internet infrastructure in the hands of intergovernmental organizations:
Privatizing the domain name system has been a goal of Democratic and Republican administrations since 1997. Prior to our 2014 announcement to complete the privatization, some governments used NTIA’s continued stewardship of the IANA functions to justify their demands that the United Nations, the International Telecommunication Union or some other body of governments take control over the domain name system. Failing to follow through on the transition or unilaterally extending the contract will only embolden authoritarian regimes to intensify their advocacy for government-led or intergovernmental management of the Internet via the United Nations.
The TechFreedom “coalition letter” raises no new arguments or issues – it is a nakedly political appeal for Congress to intervene to stop the transition, based mainly on partisan hatred of the Obama administration. But I think this debate is highly significant nevertheless. It’s not about rational policy argumentation, it’s about the diverging political identity of people who say they are pro-freedom.
What is really happening here is a rift between nationalist conservativism of the sort represented by the Heritage Foundation and the nativists in the Tea Party, on the one hand, and true free market libertarians, on the other. The root of this difference is a radically different conception of the role of the nation-state in the modern world. Real libertarians see national borders as, at best, administrative necessary evils, and at worst as unjustifiable obstacles to society and commerce. A truly classical liberal ethic is founded on individual rights and a commitment to free and open markets and free political institutions everywhere, and thus is universalist and globalist in outlook. They see the economy and society as increasingly globalized, and understand that the institution of the state has to evolve in new directions if basic liberal and democratic values are to be institutionalized in that environment.
The nationalist Republican conservatives, on the other hand, want to strengthen the state. They are hemmed in by a patriotic and exceptionalist view of its role. Insofar as they are motivated by liberal impulses at all – and of course many parts of their political base are not – it is based on a conception of freedom situated entirely on national-level institutions. As such, it implies walling the world off or, worse, dominating the world as a pre-eminent nation-state. The rise of Trump and the ease with which he took over the Republican Party ought to be a signal to the real libertarians that the Republican Party is no longer viable as a lesser-of-two-evils home for true liberals. The base of the Republican Party, the coalition of constituencies and worldviews of which it is composed, is splitting into two camps with irreconcilable differences over fundamental issues. Good riddance to the nationalists, I say. This split poses a tremendous opportunity for libertarians to finally free themselves of the social conservatism, nationalistic militarists, nativists and theocrats that have dragged them down in the GOP.