Could China take over the internet?

Epoch Times thinks so:

In November 2014, Li Yuxiao, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Cyberspace, stated, according to the state-run China Daily: “Now is the time for China to realize its responsibilities. If the United States is willing to give up its running of the internet sphere, the question comes as to who will take the baton and how it would be run.

“We have to first set our goal in cyberspace, and then think about the strategy to take, before moving on to refining our laws,” he said.

Li is now the head of a department designed to enforce the Chinese regime’s laws on technology companies. His comments are tied to a process announced by the United States in 2014 to relinquish control of the internet by ending the contract between the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

This process is now nearing its completion, with a deadline of Oct. 1.

US News has a good article spelling out some of the practical implications of the US government ceding control of the core technical functions of the internet:

Additionally, while it is true ICANN has not played a direct censorship role in other countries, there is the potential for future problems. Currently, a number of countries – including Russia and China – have the power to restrict access to specific websites within their territorial borders, but cannot do so globally. But what if these authoritarian regimes, via their positions on the GAC [Governmental Advisory Committee], gained a consensus and proposed to the ICANN board that no explicitly anti-government website domain name (for example, www.stopthePRC.com) can be created because it could have domestic security implications? The special advisory power of the GAC states that even overruled proposals must “attempt to reach a mutually acceptable solution,” so a watered-down version of any censorship initiative could still be enacted after initial rejection by the board.

Similarly, what if the Chinese government had the power to pressure ICANN board members to edit the internet address book and remove a website that might be troublesome for its leadership? That sort of broad and egregious censorship cannot occur under U.S. stewardship today.

Second, although difficult to accomplish, after the transition it is possible for ICANN’s bylaws to be changed, which would allow anything from a change in location to a change in functioning – and the U.S. would no longer have any regulatory power to prevent it. Additionally, if ICANN moved to Switzerland, as has been proposed, it would no longer be a California corporation and might fall outside the jurisdiction of impartial American courts.

It is not at all clear to me how the global internet will be “better off” under the stewardship of a collection of hundreds of national governments, corporations, and advocacy groups, than under the US Department of Commerce. It’s even less clear how changing the status quo would serve American interests. The only real benefit seems to be positive PR; according to The Wall Street Journal in 2014:

So why is this happening? Couldn’t they just leave things the way they were? The main goal is to reassure other countries that the U.S. isn’t secretly controlling the structure of the Internet. To the extent American businesses have been damaged by the Edward Snowden disclosures, especially those offering cloud and other online services, this is a move aimed at repairing the relationship between the U.S. and other countries on Internet issues.

Make no mistake, this is a concession by the U.S. While the Commerce Department rarely intervened publicly in ICANN’s affairs, the implicit threat of its ability to do so will be gone.

“Reassuring other countries,” while desirable in itself, doesn’t strike me as a compelling enough reason for the US to irrevocably give up the keys to the global internet.

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