The US government's plan to relinquish stewardship of key internet governance functions is under attack from Republicans who are using blatant falsehoods and fear-mongering to obstruct the historic transfer, according to internet policy experts.
Led by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Republicans are working to sabotage the US government's long-standing plan to transfer oversight of core internet technical functions, including management of the Domain Name System (DNS), to a nonprofit group of global stakeholders.
Cruz and his GOP allies claim that the Oct. 1 transfer would undermine global internet freedom, imperil US national security, and violate federal law—and they've pledged to use the federal budget process to block the move. Cruz has even gone so far as to threaten federal employees working on the transition with prosecution and imprisonment.
"If Congress fails to act, the Obama administration intends to give away control of the internet to an international body akin to the United Nations," Cruz declared last week on the Senate floor. "If the proposal goes though, it will empower countries like Russia, China, and Iran to be able to censor speech on the internet, your speech."
Internet policy experts say Cruz's attempt to delay the transition, which is largely clerical in nature and unlikely to even be noticed by the world's 3.2 billion internet users, poses serious risks to global internet governance and could embolden repressive regimes around the world to undermine internet freedom and seek greater government-led or intergovernmental control of the internet.
"The Obama administration's proposal to give away control of the internet poses a significant threat to our freedom," Cruz said, warning darkly of "the significant, irreparable damage this proposed internet giveaway could wreak not only on our nation but on free speech across the world."
Internet policy experts say the claims advanced by Cruz and his allies are blatantly false, and amount to political grandstanding that demonstrates a fundamental ignorance about how the internet works, especially when it comes to warnings that Russia, China, or Iran could somehow censor Americans' speech on the internet.
"There's no legitimate way for him to get to that conclusion," Milton Mueller, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy and a leading authority on global internet governance, told PolitiFact, which rated Cruz's claims as FALSE. "What he's doing is fear-mongering and trying to create a bogeyman, which is the United Nations."
In fact, by launching a politically-motivated crusade against the internet governance transition, Cruz appears to be taking advantage of an important international tech policy issue to stoke the now-familiar conservative conspiracy theory that President Obama is not a loyal American, but instead is a traitorous interloper who wants to cede US sovereignty to the UN, or perhaps more ominously, to "enemies" of the US.
The US government has long maintained stewardship of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions, including the DNS, which operates like a "phone book" for the internet, and translates recognizable names like vice.com into numeric internet protocol (IP) addresses that connect users to websites around the world.
For more than a decade, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group, has managed the IANA functions under a contract with the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). But as far back as 1998, the US made clear that it intended to privatize the DNS in order to facilitate "international participation in its management."
To fulfill this goal, the NTIA intends to allow its contract with ICANN to expire on Sept. 30, at which time ICANN will assume sole stewardship of the internet's key technical functions. Most internet experts support the internet governance transition, because it would undermine an argument used by repressive regimes to lobby for greater power over internet governance, or even break off from the global internet altogether.
"This process hasn't been perfect, but the status quo has long been untenable because it threatens to break the internet apart," said Lauren Weinstein, a veteran internet policy and technology expert who was involved in developing the ARPANET, the precursor to the internet. "The rest of the world isn't going to stay along this path, and if they go off in their own directions, we'll have a fragmented internet where we can't reliably talk to each other globally anymore. And then a key point of the internet will be lost."
Americans don't have to be concerned about foreign countries censoring the internet, we have to worry about people like Ted Cruz censoring the internet.
Cruz's argument suggesting that the transition will lead to some UN-like intergovernmental takeover of the internet is completely wrong, according to Weinstein and other experts. In fact, the transition will do the opposite, by distributing stewardship of the global internet's core technical functions to a broad, international coalition of public and private stakeholders, in which no single nation can undermine the key functions for everyone else.
"The relative power held by governments within ICANN will actually decrease as the role of the private sector, civil society, the technical and security communities, and end users will be enhanced," Kathryn C. Brown, President and CEO of the Internet Society, a leading internet policy group, said in a letter to Congress. "Governments will be but one stakeholder among many, with no more or no less power than any of their counterparts."
After the transition, ICANN will be overseen by a 20-member international board of directors made up of leading internet policy experts, on which representatives of governments are prohibited from serving as voting members. The board will be advised by representatives from 171 countries, including the US (and its major allies), which will wield veto power over any formal advice given to the board.
"There is no possibility of governments being able to take control of ICANN, through the provisions that have now been put in the by-laws," Assistant US Commerce Secretary and NTIA Chief Larry Strickling, who is overseeing the transition for the US government, testified before Congress this week.
That's part of the reason why leading civil society and public interest groups support the internet governance transition, including Access Now, Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. These groups argue that the whole point of the transition to a multi-stakeholder model is to prevent any one nation from exercising direct government control over the internet.
"We believe the best defense against foreign governments exerting control over the internet is to finish the transition on time," these civil society groups said in a statement. "The transition of these functions away from the US government removes an excuse for authoritarian countries to demand greater oversight and regulation of internet issues."
Leading US technology companies also strongly support the transition. "We believe that this important proposal will assure the continuing security, stability and resiliency of this system," Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter wrote in a letter to US lawmakers. "Furthermore, crucial safeguards are in place to protect human rights, including the freedom of speech."
But these endorsements haven't stopped Cruz and his allies from waging a fear-based campaign to convince the public that the US is somehow relinquishing "control" of the internet to a UN-like international body, an assertion that makes no sense because the internet is a decentralized, global "network of networks" that no single government controls.
"To be crystal clear, the United States does not control the internet," Assistant US Commerce Secretary Strickling testified. "No one country or entity controls the internet. The internet is a network of networks that operates with the cooperation of stakeholders around the world."
"Failing to follow through on the transition or unilaterally extending the IANA functions contract will only embolden authoritarian regimes to intensify their advocacy for government-led or intergovernmental management of the internet via the United Nations," Strickling added, noting that the NTIA has long made clear that it wouldn't accept a proposal that "replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution."
Cruz justifies his position by extolling the virtues of the "open internet," which Weinstein finds laughable given the Texas lawmaker's fierce opposition to net neutrality, the principle that the internet should remain free, open, and accessible.
Governments will be but one stakeholder among many, with no more or no less power than any of their counterparts.
"It's ironic that Ted Cruz is waxing eloquent on the Senate floor about internet freedom, when he is vehemently opposed to net neutrality, and has taken the dominant ISPs' view that they should be allowed to control what Americans see," Weinstein told Motherboard. "Americans don't have to be concerned about foreign countries censoring the internet, we have to worry about people like Ted Cruz censoring the internet."
Cruz has also tried to stoke fear by warning that if the transfer goes through, the US risks losing control of the .gov and .mil domains, which are used by government and military officials for official business and national security-related matters. Cruz asserted on the Senate floor that Congress has "received no assurances from the Obama administration that the US government will continue to have exclusive ownership and control of the .gov and .mil domains."
But this claim by Cruz is also blatantly false, experts say. In fact, the US will continue to retain authority over the .gov and .mil top-level domains for a simple reason: US control over these domains predates the US government's contract with ICANN, and the US has no intention of giving them up. "The United States, prior to the creation ICANN, had complete authority and control over .mil and .gov," Strickling testified. "That condition exists today and will continue on into the future."
Cruz has also suggested that ICANN might be planning to leave its California-based jurisdiction in Los Angeles for a foreign country.
This claim is likewise false, according to both Strickling and Göran Marby, ICANN's CEO, who also appeared before Congress this week. When asked by Sen. Mike Lee, an influential Utah Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, if ICANN is committed to "remaining domiciled in California subject to both US and California law, post-transition," Marby flatly replied: "Yes."
"ICANN's bylaws confirm that 'the principal office for the transaction of the business of ICANN shall be in the County of Los Angeles, State of California, United States of America,'" Strickling added. "ICANN's Board cannot change this bylaw over the objection of the stakeholder community. ICANN is a California corporation and will remain so."
Cruz has also asserted that when it comes to the internet governance transition, Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has "contempt" for the rule of law, because he intends to "give away this valuable, critical property" without Congressional approval. Cruz warned that US government employees working on the transition "risk personal liability in going forward contrary to law."
The basis for Cruz's threat appears to be Article IV, Section 3 of the US Constitution, which states: "Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States."
But this claim is absurd, experts say, because the US government neither "owns" nor "controls" the internet—contrary to the false assertions of some critics of the impending transfer—and never intended to maintain its stewardship role indefinitely. Weinstein said that this suggestion is further evidence that Cruz doesn't understand how the internet works.
"A lot of very smart people who care about free speech have been working for a long time to craft this transition in a way that makes sure that the kind of nightmare scenarios that Cruz is coming up with can't and won't happen," Weinstein said. "And these people are vastly more knowledgeable about how the internet works than Ted Cruz."
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