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Last updated: Sat. Mar. 22, 2014 - 06:23 am EDT

COLUMN

America can't police the world, but it can keep the Internet

History shows the bad guys get bolder when the U.S. gets weaker

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“Let him who desires peace prepare for war.”

A Roman author named Vegetius wrote those words in the fourth century, but as recent events have illustrated, the warning remains all too valid – and not just because Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of Western weakness in Crimea.

Almost unnoticed in the furor created by Russia's “annexation” of the Ukraine and the world's tepid response to it, the United States recently announced it will give up control over key part of the Internet: the database of names and addresses that allows the world's computers to speak to each other..

On the surface, the Commerce Department's decision and Putin's political and military aggression would seem to have little in common. Unfortunately, they both reflect the United States' willing abdication of its ability to influence the actions of people who may or may not value free speech and democracy.

Administration officials dismiss Russia's Hitleresque actions as some sort of anachronism out of place in the 21st century, but in fact it is their naivete that is out of place – and dangerous. Someone must take the lead in any human endeavor, and if the virtuous abdicate that responsibility, the bullies will inevitably rush in to fill the vacuum.

And so it is that the Obama administration, which has more than once advertised its discomfort with American exceptionalism and dominance, now wants to turn control of cyberspace over to the “global Internet community.”

Except, of course, there is no such thing. If America – which invented the Internet – doesn't control it, rest assured others will at least try to do so.

“Giving up control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will allow countries like China and Russia that don't place the same value in freedom of speech to better define how the Internet looks and operates,” warned Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

And once that control is gone, added Information Technology and Innovation Foundation analyst Daniel Castro, “it will be gone forever . . . (creating) a splintered Internet that would stifle innovation, commerce and the free flow and diversity of ideas that are bedrock tenets of the world's biggest economic engine.”

As with all human creations, neither the Internet nor the United States is perfect. In addition to challenging the viability of newspapers, computers have turned too many of us into robots who would rather text “I love you” to someone than say it face to face. And it's become painfully clear that the federal government is using the technology in ways that are not always consistent with the Constitution.

But the personal freedoms inherent in the Internet has also been a threat to the world's most despotic regimes, which is why so many have tried to limit its use and why countries like China, Russia and Iran have sought more control of it through the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (NTIA).

Some applaud the change as a way to increase innovators' control of the Internet and to minimize the chance of manipulation by any government. And while the administration acknowledges the potential for abuse, it says it will demand that ICANN submit a new management plan before finalizing the transition in 2015.

But why should the U.S. willingly give up control of an asset that is so clearly in its national interest, especially when so many others have already demonstrated their willingness and ability to manipulate it?

This is not just some esoteric debate among "techies." Control of domain names gives the U.S. leverage in debates over Internet operations, increasing its ability to oppose international efforts to stifle free speech. Just because we sometimes do that job imperfectly hardly means others could do it more faithfully – even if they wanted to.

History has demonstrated more than once, often tragically, that the world is not made more safe by a weakened or disinterested United States. We cannot and should not be the world's policeman, and we can and should be more faithful to our own ideals. But we should not be so eager to become just another nation – militarily, technologically or otherwise – unless something better comes along.

And, despite our many flaws, nothing better has come along yet in all of recorded history. Just something to keep in mind now that the proposed defense budget would reduce the armed forces to their lowest levels since 1940.

We all know what happened the following year, and it wasn't peace.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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