Here's a conundrum for our times.
The Internet has opened up free expression to millions of people around the world, including those who live in dictatorships. But the United States just announced it intends to give up oversight of the functioning of the Internet to an as yet unformed international organization. The idea is to give more government and private entities a bigger stake in controlling the Web. But it could also mean stifling the free flow of ideas.
You probably aren't surprised to know that this has created a huge international controversy, with pro-democracy advocates in a tizzy and academics engaged full-throated debate. Most of us are scratching our perplexed heads.
You also might not be surprised to know that the widespread spying by the U.S. National Security Agency for the last six years has contributed to the brouhaha.
Is the Obama administration about to make a huge mistake with potentially disastrous ramifications for millions of people around the globe?
Possibly. The U.S. Department of Commerce says that it was always intended that the U.S. oversight of the Internet over a group that doles out domain names and Internet address numbers would be temporary. The contract between Commerce Department and the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, which has been doing the daily, onerous task of technical management of the Internet in California, expires Sept. 30, 2015.
It is not an easy task to oversee the Internet, with millions of Internet Protocol addresses and names to keep track of and manage. Commerce's contract with ICANN has worked well (Commerce always has had authority to veto ICANN's decisions), but Commerce says the "timing is right" for the rest of the world to take over.
ICANN has matured as a competent, independent operation. But because of NSA's enthusiasm about tapping cell phones of world leaders and reading emails, many regard ICANN with suspicion because of its partnership with Commerce. Thus Commerce proposes to terminate it.
But with governments increasingly being called "stakeholders" in the use of the Internet, many are worried that if repressive regimes get more control over the Internet, they will do what China has done -- restrict access to citizens.
Commerce stresses that one of the goals of the transition from U.S. control of administration of the Internet (by Commerce's White-House-advising National Telecommunications and Information Administration) to international control is maintaining the "openness of the Internet."
Let's see how that is working right now. A few days ago Turkey's government banned Twitter because Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was angry about leaks on social media that fueled a corruption scandal involving his government. He is worried about keeping his 11-year-old hold on power.
Commerce says the first step in the transition is creation of an oversight body that would "win the trust of crucial stakeholders around the world." Sure. Governments such as Russia and China will simply step aside and let well-meaning, humanitarian, benign non-profits take over the most powerful communications tool ever invented.
There is an "out." If Commerce is convinced an international oversight body developed by ICANN would not be fair, uncorrupt, open and functional, ICANN's supervision could be extended as is. But the fallout would be extreme -- the U.S. promises international control but then backs away from it?
We ponder the efficacy of international bodies such as the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Telecommunications Union and are left doubtful that an "independent," non-profit body, even one conceived by the global tech community, could oversee the complicated entity that is the Internet. Let alone maintain the innovation and fairness such a hungry beast demands.
How ironic and tragic if Edward Snowden's thoughtless unleashing of NSA secrets ends up endangering cyberspace in unfathomable ways.
(Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.)