Jay Ambrose: Bill Clinton does freedom a favor

First Posted: 3/26/2014

Bill Clinton to the rescue?

You bet. The former president recently spoke forcefully about an Obama administration plan that could aid authoritarian regimes in their efforts to muffle the liberating voice of the Internet and transform it instead into a tool bolstering their own life-diminishing agendas.

It’s something these regimes are already up to, but not with total success. Vast numbers in many of these lands still have more unvarnished information and communication avenues available than ever before, and that’s both humanly uplifting and politically valuable, if not enough in itself to tear down autocratic walls.

The administration plan is to relinquish unilateral U.S. oversight of allocating names and addresses to people and entities wanting Internet websites. The regulatory power would be passed next year to an international group not yet figured out, but one that would consist of major Internet stakeholders.

Some of these almost certainly would be countries anxious for an added means of ridding themselves of the menace of free speech. Or, as Clinton put it in a Tempe, Ariz., panel discussion sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative, they would be those wanting “this authority from the U.S. for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom and limiting it and having governments protect their backsides instead of empowering their people.”

It’s not like such a charade would be something previously unseen in world affairs. Consider, for instance, how some of the United Nations’ human rights violators have served on the agency charged with protecting those rights. There are, of course, arguments saying don’t worry about what might happen. The arguments make me worry.

Some countries are already squashing Internet communications, it’s said. So we should make it easier for them?

Ceding this regulatory authority won’t give anyone the ability to control all the Internet, it’s said. No, but doesn’t some added ability to do increased harm still add up to the possibility of increased harm?

Going from U.S. supervision to supervision by international entities just won’t limit freedom, it’s said. But how can anyone know that? The answer is that, as of now, no one can.

The U.S. supervision of domain names and addresses — carried out by a Commerce Department agency overseeing a non-profit California corporation — is hardly an arbitrary assumption of power. The Internet, now worldwide, was invented here and most of its masterful intricacies developed and polished here. We’ve managed it well, especially considering how it is ever evolving, although lately there’s been increased international pressure on us to let go of our overseeing duties.

One prompting factor has been the Edward Snowden revelations about widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency. That’s made people here and abroad nervous about U.S. abuses of power, and the fear is that we might put our Internet prowess to intrusive purpose.

The trust-building answer, it seems to me, is for the president to get more serious about the rule of law generally, not just assuring against overreaching by the NSA, but about all kinds of laxity on constitutional issues, including press freedom. A New York Times reporter, James Risen, was just recently quoted as saying this administration is “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.”

The president should also listen to Clinton.

“Whatever you think our country has done wrong, the United States has been by far the country most committed to keeping the Internet free and open and uninterrupted,” he said.

I think that’s true, and I think it is important that a popular, Democratic ex-president said it. Administration officials may grin and bear it when Republicans bark at them, but here’s a growl that just might make them consider far more carefully how they proceed.

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