Has the United States 'lost control' of the internet?

Donald Trump's campaign has expressed concern that the United States is going to hand over control of the internet in October. What's happening, and why does it matter?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) (R) greets businessman Donald Trump onstage as they address a Tea Party rally against at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in 2015. The two are united in opposition to transferring Internet control to an international group of stakeholders.

Who owns the internet? A White House effort to ensure that the internet belongs to everyone has raised concerns for some groups within the United States.

During Monday night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump discussed US control of the internet, saying, “Under President Obama, we’ve lost control of things that we used to have control over. We came in with an internet, we came up with the internet.” This “loss of control” may have been a reference to an issue Trump has been outspoken about: the planned transfer of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to a community of global stakeholders.

At this moment, the US Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has a contract with the international nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which regulates domain names. Transferring control of this body to a broad base of internet stakeholders from around the world, ICANN believes, is the best way to ensure that the internet remains open and a valuable resource for all.

“The final proposal and consultation was a testimony of effectiveness of the global Internet stakeholder model. Commenters and participants were individuals, operational communities, ICANN community, businesses and trade associations, civil society organizations, governments and others from across all regions of the world,” explained Mohamed El Bashir, vice chair of the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG).

The United States has had de facto responsibility for domain names since the early days of the internet, when a University of California-Los Angeles graduate student named Jonathan Postel began keeping track of the unique numbers assigned to computers.

“It’s just something that would be a way of coordinating as people came online and needed to use numbers and, later, names,” Jonathan Zittrain, an internet law professor at Harvard University, told NPR. 

Following Postel’s death in 1998, ICANN was formed – and has been responsible for keeping track of websites worldwide ever since. When its contract with the Commerce Department ends on Friday, the IANA stewardship transition plan, supported by the Obama administration, would make ICANN fully independent.

Critics such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have objected to the planned transfer. 

Their concerns? In one video opposing the move, Cruz declares, “Russia, and China, and Iran don’t have a First Amendment. They don’t protect free speech, and they actively censor the Internet. ICANN could do the same thing, putting foreign countries in charge of what you can say online, prohibiting speech that they disagree with.” 

ICANN already has an advisory board with members from around the world. There have been suggestions that international pressures have prevented the adoption of new domain names such as “.gay”, which gay rights advocates say would help aggregate resources for gay people.

But ICANN says that it is not, and cannot become, a regulator of Internet speech. Its contract with the US government and corporate headquarters within the US do not affect countries’ ability to censor internet content, which will remain the same after the transition. It has also explicitly stated that the nonprofit does not have any formal relationship with the Chinese government.

Some say that it’s important for the US to move to this global stakeholder model now in order to maintain the trust of the international community and keep government – the government of any country or the UN – out of the Internet.

“[A delay] will send the wrong message to the international community, increase distrust, and will likely encourage some governments to pursue their own national or even regional Internets,” the Global Commission on Internet Governance said in a statement in June.

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