As Congress debates a continuing resolution and a possible government shutdown looms on the horizon, Senator Ted Cruz has focused his attention on a different, no less vital task: retaining the U.S.’s role in the management of the Internet. Cruz’s bill, the Protecting Internet Freedom Act (PIFA), is intended to preserve the federal government’s existing contract between the non-profit organization ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and a Commerce Department office called the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). In so doing, it seeks to preserve free-speech rights on the global Internet.
In essence, ICANN is responsible for assigning and coordinating domain names and numbers for the Internet, ensuring that its users can find the sites they search for. According to Shane Tews, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy, allowing the contract between the NTIA and ICANN to expire, as it is set to on October 1, wouldn’t amount to relinquishing U.S. control, because the government never controlled ICANN or the Internet to begin with. Rather, the NTIA has been verifying ICANN’s work, allowing the U.S. to assure that the Internet remains uncensored and operating smoothly. If the federal government allows the contract — called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function contract — to expire, the verification now performed by the NTIA will become the responsibility of a non-governmental organization, Public Technical Identifiers (PTI).
Under the existing structure, the government of each country that attends an ICANN meeting is allowed input in decisions but doesn’t have a vote. But the structure that would prevail if the IANA function was transferred to PTI would “allow all attending countries to have a vote, which would allow them to have more weight in the process,” Tews tells National Review. By allowing the IANA contract to expire and relinquishing its oversight authority, the federal government would thus give Russia and China direct influence over what is included in the root zone, a standardized file currently hosted by the U.S. that serves as the first step in the process of finding any particular website.
Countries such as China and Russia already censor the Internet domestically, but Cruz and his allies are concerned that the expiration of the IANA contract will make it easier for other tyrannical governments to follow suit, by voting to limit global access to certain sites by removing them from the root zone through ICANN.
“The concern is that the current policy in China and Russia becomes the global norm,” Tews added. “If ICANN took out one of the domain-name extensions . . . it would quickly degrade and it’d be harder and harder to find the thing you’re looking for. So the concern is twofold. One is that if you take something out [of the root], that could be dangerous. The other is that they could not allow something new to be added.”
These concerns stem from knowledge of the way in which China and Russia already manipulate the Internet within their own borders. “The Internet is a way to create communities in religious areas or lifestyle areas like a .Muslim or a .gay, for example,” Tews noted. “And there are certain countries whose governments don’t condone that behavior. The concern is that countries like China or Russia would request that these communities not be brought into the root, and they would no longer be available.”
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and technology expert Daniel Weitzner argued that to maintain the existing contract between the NTIA and ICANN would “risk undermining the global consensus that has enabled [the] Internet to function and flourish.” Furthermore, they asserted that ICANN does not play any role in today’s most egregious violations of free speech, that it cannot be used as a censorship tool, and that the U.S. cannot use ICANN to prevent countries from censoring speech.
The new structure could enable oppressive regimes to take control of the global Internet and restrict access outside their borders.
But Tews thinks the voting structure that would be instated after October 1 is a bad idea because many countries would horse trade their votes and might, for example, throw their support behind Russia or China in return for those nations’ support in another issue of interest. In this way, the new structure could enable oppressive regimes to take control of the global Internet and restrict access outside their borders. (And, even if the U.S. was able to work around these changes within its own borders, the Internet would still be profoundly changed for the worse worldwide.)
Tews believes that ending the IANA contract at some point is the right thing to do, but that right now isn’t the right time. “I liken it to getting married or getting divorced,” she said. “You can always do either, but only the right time is the right time, not just because someone has a date at the church. . . . They should do it when they’re adequately prepared.”
Meanwhile, Berners-Lee and Weitzner say that if the U.S. does not relinquish this contract, it would “stoop to the level of Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes that believe in the use of force to limit freedom online.” But the current contract doesn’t permit the U.S. to exercise any control over the Internet; rather, it allows the NTIA to ensure that ICANN continues to manage domain names in a manner consistent with free speech and the First Amendment. As Cruz points out, neither ICANN nor any other world power is beholden to the First Amendment, and if the U.S. were to give up its role in the process, there would no longer be any guarantee that First Amendment protections would continue to extend to the Internet.
Berners-Lee and Weitzner also ignore the way in which the NTIA has managed the Internet up to this point. According to Tews, the Commerce Department should be given more credit for the fact that it never attempted to prevent any domain names from being added to the root zone. In fact, she noted that the George W. Bush administration permitted ICANN to adopt .xxx into the root, despite arguments from the religious right that doing so would lead to the proliferation of Internet pornography.
Why fix what isn’t broken? The U.S. has effectively maintained its minimal oversight role since 1998, and it has yet to hamper “global consensus” or undermine the global Internet community. What it has done is prevent malicious actors from exerting oppressive influence over the world’s use of the Internet, and there is no compelling reason it should give up its ability to do so going forward.