The WeChat and TikTok Bans Show the U.S. No Longer Stands for Internet Freedom
In 2014, the United States began the process of relinquishing the last vestiges of its stewardship over the internet, starting a transition of full control to an international nonprofit, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It was a big deal—you may remember Sen. Ted Cruz warning about “the significant, irreparable damage this proposed internet giveaway could wreak not only on our nation but on free speech across the world.” At the time, I thought the ICANN transition was a mistake. Now, I suspect I was wrong.
ICANN is, in effect, the keeper of the internet address book—the Domain Name System, or DNS.
Someone, after all, has to decide that “microsoft.com” means the big computer software company in Washington so that when you type those words into your web browser you wind up at their servers and not at the server owned by a small company marketing tiny, soft towels. And someone has to decide that in addition to top level addresses that already exist (like dot.org and dot.com), we can now start using dot.bank and dot.xxx and dot.home as valid global top level domains (gTLDs). We call this role the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA—that is, the right and responsibility to assign names among the domains.
Historically, since the original architecture of the network was developed in the United States, that responsibility was originally given to American institutions. Indeed, initially, it was the U.S. government itself. Beginning in the 1990s, however, the U.S. government offloaded much of that responsibility to a third party when it began contracting out the IANA function to ICANN.
ICANN is an American nonprofit corporation with headquarters in Southern California. It was, to summarize and simplify, created for the purpose of being able to contract to run the IANA function. And so, for roughly 15 years ICANN entered into a contract with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, a component of the Department of Commerce, to manage the IANA function. (I promise I am done introducing new initialisms.) That status quo continued until 2014, when the NTIA began a process of allowing the IANA contract to lapse, thereby transitioning the entire responsibility for the IANA function to ICANN.
When the NTIA first made this proposal, it insisted that ICANN step up to the plate and develop a more mature set of accountability measures to ensure that the IANA function would continue to operate well. Two years of difficult and interesting negotiations ensued, in which I played an active (though quite minor) role. At the end, I was left with the considered view that the transition of authority to ICANN should be delayed (or at least tested before it was finalized). My main concern was that the new structure at ICANN would leave national governments with too much power. And many of those governments were authoritarian ones that would see control of ICANN as a way of controlling flows of information to their citizens. I was concerned (and, candidly, still am) that ICANN’s diffuse governance structure gives it inadequate resources to resist adverse governmental influence.
And, so, I was of the view that the U.S. should continue to play a small role in governing ICANN.
To be sure, the role was mostly symbolic—but as a symbol I thought it was a powerful one. In my opinion the U.S. government had stood as a bulwark against authoritarian influence on the network since it was created. And even though the U.S. was an imperfect nation (much of this discussion was happening in the immediate aftermath of the Snowden revelations), it had generally served as a protector of network freedom of expression. By and large, warts and all, an active U.S. role was, I thought, a net benefit to the world. You may, if you wish, see this as my own particular flavor of American exceptionalism—and you may even deride it as such. But I felt comfortable in saying that American influence on the network was, on balance, more benign than injurious.
Critical to that assessment was my belief that no U.S. government would ever support an effort to restrain freedom of expression on the network. As I wrote in a different context, about a different internet authority, “any President of either party should not be presumed to exercise powers granted in a dictatorial way.”
There were, of course, exceptions to this rule. (For instance, several years earlier the U.S. government had tried to dissuade ICANN from adopting a dot.xxx gTLD, as part of a puritanical pursuit.) But from my perspective, the rarity of those instances of interference actually strengthened the point. Gifted with extraordinary influence, the United States had shown significant restraint. I thought we were a force for “good” on the network and that the world would rue our stepping back from a leadership role.
It seems that I was wrong. Recently, the United States has moved to restrict and control the content that U.S. citizens can put on their phones—initiating a ban of both WeChat and TikTok from web stores. While it has yet to be seen whether these bans ever take full effect (as the dispute evolves almost daily) the ultimate success or failure of the American effort is almost irrelevant. What is shocking, and dismaying, is that the effort was made at all.
Besides being relatively ineffective, the attempted bans give the lie to the premise of the U.S. as protector of network liberty. It mirrors in many relevant respects the acts of authoritarian governments who use somewhat blunter controls to restrict internet access or prohibit unwelcome content—the means may differ but the logic is the same.
Even more to the point, the “logic” of the U.S. position is fundamentally at odds with Americans’ economic interests. Today, we ban TikTok because it is subject to Chinese control. Tomorrow (or actually yesterday) other governments look at American surveillance law and take action against Facebook and Twitter and Bing. Even worse, by banning applications from China, we are traitors to our own social values. In the fight against authoritarian governments, we soon become that which we have opposed.
My error four years ago was simple—I did not anticipate this particular administration. I can only plead a lack of imagination. One can readily envision what the Clean Network initiative, which purports to be administration’s “comprehensive approach to safeguarding the nation’s assets including citizens’ privacy and companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party,” would look like if the U.S. government still had ICANN subject to contractual control. While I thought, at the time, that the world was losing a strong protector of network freedom (and making a mistake), today one can only be glad that the transition was accomplished before the change in administrations.