The Obama administration has played into the hands of authoritarian regimes. In 2011, Vladimir Putin —who, as Russia took over Crimea in recent days, shut down many online critics and independent media—set a goal of “international control over the Internet.”

In the past few years, Russia and China have used a U.N. agency called the International Telecommunication Union to challenge the open Internet. They have lobbied for the ITU to replace Washington as the Icann overseer. They want the ITU to outlaw anonymity on the Web (to make identifying dissidents easier) and to add a fee charged to providers when people gain access to the Web “internationally”—in effect, a tax on U.S.-based sites such as Google and Facebook. The unspoken aim is to discourage global Internet companies from giving everyone equal access.

The Obama administration was caught flat-footed at an ITU conference in 2012 stage-managed by authoritarian governments. Google organized an online campaign against the ITU, getting three million people to sign a petition saying that “a free and open world depends on a free and open web.” Former Obama aide Andrew McLaughlin proposed abolishing the ITU, calling it “the chosen vehicle for regimes for whom the free and open Internet is seen as an existential threat.” Congress unanimously opposed any U.N. control over the Internet.