While international attention is focused on the seizure of Crimea, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been quietly advancing towards victory on another front – Internet censorship – according to The Wall Street Journal
The newspaper’s former publisher L. Gordon Crovitz writes in a Journal op-ed that Washington is in the process of relinquishing oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN
– the organization responsible for assigning Web addresses and domain names.
Since the late 1990s, Washington has exercised this responsibility to make sure that the Internet runs efficiently and is not subject to political pressure from any government.
But last Friday, the Obama Administration announced that the Commerce Department will end its oversight role effective next year – creating a potential power vacuum that non-democratic regimes in Russia and China are eager to fill.
Putin, who has repeatedly used intimidation and censorship
against Russian media has called for “international control over the Internet.”
On this issue, he will find an ally in China, which has moved aggressively
to export censorship technology to Iran and other authoritarian states.
If Moscow, Beijing and similar regimes are successful, Internet domains “could be banned and new ones not approved for meddlesome groups such as Ukrainian-independence organizations or Tibetan human-rights activists,” the Journal warns.
In recent years, Russia and China have lobbied in support of transferring control over the Internet from ICANN to the International Telecommunication Union
, a U.N. agency. Both regimes seek to ban Internet anonymity, making it easier to identify dissidents.
In 2012, an ITU conference dominated by pro-censorship states rammed through a new treaty giving governments the authority to block their citizens’ global Internet access.
Three million people responded to a Google-backed lobbying campaign against the ITU by signing a petition stating that "a free and open world depends on a free and open web,” and Congress unanimously voted to oppose U.N. control over the Internet.
But the opposition came too late to stop the pro-censorship bloc from winning a major victory at the ITU, where countries voted 89-55 to ratify a new treaty granting authority to governments to deny Internet access. The treaty takes effect next year.
Esther Dyson, ICANN’s founding chairwoman in the late 1990s, terms U.N. oversight a "fate worse than death" for the Internet. But, according to the Journal, if the Obama White House move to relinquish control over ICANN is not reversed, the United States “will hand the future of the Web to the majority of countries in the world already on record hoping to close the open Internet.”
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