Obama’s Bungled Internet Surrender

The group the White House favors for online oversight is turning into an abusive monopolist.


L. Gordon Crovitz

The administration last year announced its intention to abandon the contract the Commerce Department has held since the beginning of the Web with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann. Congress used its power of the purse to block the move, which had been set for September this year.

But the prospect of escaping U.S. oversight led Icann to deny accountability even for its core duty of keeping its monopoly over Web addresses working smoothly. The House Judiciary Committee last week held a hearing titled “Stakeholder Perspectives on Icann: The .Sucks Domain and Essential Steps to Guarantee Trust and Accountability in the Internet’s Operation.”

The .sucks domain was one of hundreds of new top-level domains Icann added beyond the original .com, .org and .gov. Icann, organized as a nonprofit, collects a fee each time it approves a new top-level domain and gets a cut of the registration charge for individual domain names. The corporation’s total take so far from the new domains is more than $300 million.

The Intellectual Property Constituency, an Icann stakeholder group, calls the .sucks domain “predatory, exploitative and coercive.” Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte says trademark holders are “being shaken down”—compelled to buy new addresses defensively to prevent their use.

Apple bought applestore.sucks. Gmail, Sam’s Club, Uber and Yahoo YHOO 2.07 % registered .sucks addresses, as did celebrities including Taylor Swift and Kevin Spacey. The standard price: $2,499, versus $10 for unclaimed .com addresses.

Mr. Goodlatte says the approval of .sucks “demonstrates the absurdity and futility of Icann’s own enforcement processes.” Instead of policing itself, Icann asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into whether the .sucks domain is abusive. Philip Corwin, a lawyer for the Internet Commerce Association, wrote on the CircleID website: “This is the equivalent of sending a message stating: ‘Dear Regulator: We have lit a fuse. Can you please tell us whether it is connected to a bomb?’ ”

Mr. Corwin told lawmakers the U.S. has been a “useful and corrective restraint on Icann” and a “first line of defense against any attempt at multilateral takeover and conversion to a government-dominated organization,” so “should exercise strong oversight in support of Icann’s stakeholders” in any transition of the contract.

The Internet ain’t broke, and Mr. Obama shouldn’t have tried to fix it. Icann and its stakeholders have spent the past year exhausting themselves on the impossible mission the White House set for them. They were tasked with finding some way to keep Icann operating with accountability but without U.S. oversight. Unsurprisingly, no one found a viable alternative.

Mr. Obama may be uncomfortable with American exceptionalism, but the Internet since its launch has reflected U.S. values of free speech and open innovation. That is why China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes lust for the power to control it.

Some stakeholders proposed a new institution to oversee Icann, while others wanted to build more accountability within Icann.

Last week Icann chief Fadi Chehade told the French news agency AFP that China and Brazil agreed with Icann’s proposals to end U.S. oversight and let Icann oversee itself: “It is now up to the community to wrap them up, put them in a nice little box with a bow and ship them to Washington.”

Even the Obama administration knows Mr. Chehade’s nonaccountability approach is a nonstarter. The .sucks saga shows that Icann won’t protect the Internet from unscrupulous business practices, never mind authoritarian regimes.

The Commerce Department recently asked several stakeholder groups how far past the original September date it would take to propose and implement alternatives to U.S. protection. The Obama administration still acts as if it can give up the contract overseeing Icann, but it can’t. Congress banned any steps by Commerce to give up the contract before the date in September, when the agreement must be renewed for two more years. This means Mr. Obama’s successor will decide.

The administration should tell Icann and the stakeholders to use the next two years to focus on creating accountability for Icann. If the White House persists in its wrongheaded idea to give up U.S. protection for the Internet, it should take the precaution of buying up ObamaInternetPlan.sucks.



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