Whether free speech is preserved on the Internet may turn on an arcane legal question: Who owns the “root zone file” that stores all the names and addresses for all the websites around the world. The Obama administration wants to give up control of the root zone file to an unspecified international body that would oversee the work of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). That move might give China the power to shut FreeTibet.org down or Russia the ability to censor speech by Ukrainian critics.
But, as Gordon Crovitz points out, it’s unclear whether the administration even has the authority to give control of the root zone fie” away:
Congress doubted that the president could do this on his own when the issue was considered in 2000. The General Accounting Office, now called the Government Accountability Office, concluded it was “uncertain” whether Congress has to pass a law. The Property Clause of the Constitution says Congress must pass legislation to effect a transfer of government property. Arguably the president could no more transfer the valuable control over the naming and domains of the Internet than he could give Alaska back to Russia.
Contacted by this columnist last week, a spokesman for the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration said the agency reviewed this legal issue and concluded the administration can act without Congress but refused to share a copy of the legal analysis. Congress should ask for a copy and do its own analysis. [Wall Street Journal, March 23]
The GAO report to which Crovitz refers is “Department of Commerce: Relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers,” (GAO/OGC-00-33R), July 7, 2000.