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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Internet Is Under Control Where It Is

Some 12,000 people convened last week in Tunisia for a United Nations conference on the Internet. Many delegates want an end to the U.S. Commerce Department's control over the assignment of web site addresses and e-mail accounts. The delegates' argument is that unilateral control over domain names reflects no more than the historical accident of the Internet's origins.

This argument is attractive in theory and dangerous in practice. In an ideal world, unilateralism should be avoided. But in our imperfect one, unilateral solutions that run efficiently can be better than multilateral ones that don't. The job of assigning domain names offers huge opportunities for abuse. Whoever controls this function can decide to keep certain types of individuals or organizations offline (dissidents or opposition political groups, for example). Or it can allow them on in exchange for large fees. The striking feature of U.S. oversight of the Internet is that such abuses have not occurred. Any organization that wants to register an original domain name can do so. Opportunistic cyber-squatting has been brought under control. The cost of registering a web address has fallen.

It's possible that a multilateral overseer of the Internet might be just as efficient. But the ponderous International Telecommunication Union, the UN body that would be a leading candidate to take over the domain registry, has a record of resisting innovation -- including the advent of the Internet. Moreover, a multilateral domain-registering body would be caught between the different visions of its members: Autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and China want to restrict access to the Internet while open societies want low barriers to entry. These clashes of vision would probably make multilateral regulation inefficiently political.

You may say that this is a fair price to pay to uphold the principle of sovereignty. If a country wants to keep certain users from registering domain names (Nazi groups, child pornographers, criminals), then perhaps it has a right to do so. But the clinching argument is that countries can reasonably exercise that sovereignty now without controlling domain names. They can order Internet users in their territory to take offensive material down. They can order their banks or credit card companies to refuse to process payments to unsavory web sites based abroad. Indeed, governments' ample ability to regulate the Internet has already been demonstrated by some of the countries pushing for reform, such as authoritarian China. The sovereign nations of the world have no need to wrest control of the Internet from the United States, because they already have it.

This comment first appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.