Surrendering the Internet: A Poor Strategic Decision

Information Dissemination

This week the United States made a decision completely at odds with the nation’s long term strategic planning. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Crimea and the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 largely overshadowed the decision by the U.S. Commerce Department to relinquish its last official oversight of the internet. This authority has been held, via a contract, with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN intends to turn it over management of the internet to a “global governance body”, whose form and function have not yet been determined. The United States has always been committed to the concept of free trade, and since 1945 has been the principal shield of maritime and aviation trade routes. The cyber-trade routes that course through the internet have become as important to the strategic and economic health and well-being of the U.S. as the physical air and sea routes of commerce. Complete U.S. divestment from oversight of internet domain naming conventions is a serious strategic mistake. Similar global systems created in the past were never completely abandoned as the U.S. intends to act in regard to the internet. Better options for continued U.S. monitoring and support exist. The U.S. Commerce Department is making a serious mistake in turning over this vital aspect of internet oversight to a not yet fully organized “global governance” entity.

The United States essentially “created” the internet over the course of several decades as a method for exchanging information between distant academics working on the same projects. Since its humble beginnings the internet has morphed into a communications, business, entertainment and information source “light years” beyond its origins. The privatization of this vast system from strict U.S. government control to international governance began early in the internet’s history with the 1998 creation of ICANN to oversee many internet activities formerly performed by the United States government. The follow-on 2006 agreement established full ICANN internet management with limited monitoring from U.S. government authority. Both agreements were in keeping with the very generous U.S. intent to make the internet available to all peoples without restriction. Unfortunately, complaints related to reported internet spying from U.S. intelligence agencies, or budget cuts have prompted the current U.S. administration to accelerate its abandonment of all internet oversight by September 2015. This is a serious strategic mistake. While this action may seem perfectly reasonable now, history shows that such large-scale abandonments often lead to poor future outcomes for the nation that gives up a key strategic system. Better examples of access for all with continued U.S. oversight exist as models for the internet.

There are good historical examples of governments creating large-scale economic and communication systems, and then making them available to a global customer base. Great Britain funded the a vast system of submarine cables in the late 19th and early 20th century in order to provide secure communications throughout its Empire. Although this system, the All Red Line,  was later expanded to include cables funded or owned by other nations, Great Britain frequently eavesdropped on communications in defense of its own national interests. Thanks to their retention of this capability, the British were able to inform the United States that the German Empire planned to give Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to the Mexican government if it declared war on the U.S. Had the British not retained this capability, this message, the Zimmerman telegram, might have gone unnoticed. More recently the United States opened use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) to a wide civilian and international user base while retaining its ability to use the system for national security applications.

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