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Internet control change threatens free speech

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84.2 percent of the United States population are internet users. That’s over 266 million people. Children are introduced to electronics and the internet at a very young age through online games and websites. People use the internet to connect with friends, find dates, schedule their calendars or plan a vacation. Americans spend hours online without a care in the world. With the incredible amount of people using the internet everyday, regulation and control are necessary for both security and safety. But who should be given the authority and keys to such a powerful part of American society?

47 years ago, it was decided that the government should have the power to control and oversee several internet functions. Through this decision, the federal government had the capability to oversee and exercise control over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). However, as of Oct. 1, the government has given up this power. Instead, citizens will be entrusting their internet lives to the hands of ICANN alone. In other words, everything that happens behind a computer screen can and will be monitored by a now independent non-profit organization based in California.

The decision has received mixed reviews. Some politicians, such as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Republican Senator Ted Cruz, have criticized and expressed concern about the idea.

In a recent statement, Cruz said “President Obama intends to give increased control of the internet to authoritarian regimes like China, Russia and Iran. Like Jimmy Carter gave away the Panama Canal, Obama is giving away the internet.”

In a time of increased worry over cyber warfare, a considerable number of politicians and citizens believe that the government should use federal power to monitor the internet for possible terrorism and online warfare. Many citizens believe that trusting the government with control over the internet would increase security.

If the prospect of lowering security is not a problem, is ignoring and impeding on our First Amendment rights problematic? By giving internet control to ICANN, the First Ammendment is being put at risk.

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Obviously, the idea of internet control only overlaps with nine words in the entire Amendment: “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” ICANN is controlled by a small, powerful board of influential people. By giving internet control to ICANN, the government is agreeing that this small number of individuals have the ability to protect their citizens. ICANN answers to a board of high-powered people, with their own agendas. It’s not out of the question that these people could try to stifle speech that they don’t personally agree with. Will the internet be a free space anymore?

The truth of the matter is that, like most decisions regarding the federal government, a correct answer does not exist. With ICANN in charge, security and First Amendment rights are potentially compromised.

On the other hand, it is also possible that the federal government has too much power as it is. Could this transfer of power to ICANN be more closely aligned with what the Founding Fathers intended, a decentralized United States? The internet is a powerful and influential tool. While useful, it carries dangers as well. In the midst of cyber warfare so intense that the first presidential debate asked Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump how they would stop it, the decision to give control to ICANN is a risky one.

Katie Anderson ’20 (anders43@stolaf.edu) is from Saint Paul, Minn. Her major is undecided.