For once, Donald Trump is not the main target of critics who say he’s gotten his facts wrong.
When it comes to the move to speak out against foreign control of the Internet, that honor goes to his onetime opponent – Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas. The senator is trying to get Congress to stop the Obama administration from relinquishing oversight of a piece of the Internet at the end of the month.
“Once the government’s out of the picture, First Amendment protections go away,” Senator Cruz said at a Sept. 14 Senate hearing, where he charged that by ceding control, the US was allowing China and Russia greater flexibility to censor free speech.
That Mr. Trump has joined forces with Cruz over any issue has a certain political dynamic and irony of its own; the two are not on the best of terms. But the bigger irony is that the very thing they say they want to preserve – free speech online – may be better served by supporting President Obama’s move, many experts say.
At issue is control of an Internet governance body known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which helps coordinate the process of assigning Internet addresses to domain names. In a sense, it’s like an address book for the Internet, and it’s been run under contract by the US government for the past 20 years. That contract expires Sept. 30 and the Obama administration has chosen not to renew it, so ICANN will transition to a more global governance system.
“Internet freedom is now at risk with the president’s intent to cede control to international interests, including countries like China and Russia, which have a long track record of trying to impose online censorship,” said Stephen Miller, Trump’s national policy director, on Wednesday.
Internet experts call such criticisms off-base.
Under the new ICANN regime, nations will be able to censor content “no more than they are now,” Jim Waldo, a professor and chief technology officer for Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, writes in an email. “These worries are more evidence that the people voicing them don’t understand how the technology works.”
In fact, moving away from US control may be able to preserve free speech by keeping the system free from government control.
“The best defense against foreign governments exerting control over the Internet is to finish the transition on time,” the Center for Democracy & Technology and other advocates of Internet freedom wrote in a joint statement earlier this month. “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.”
It’s not clear how long the controversy will last, or whether it’s too late for Cruz and other congressmen to thwart the transition. Cruz had been trying to attach his effort to block the independence of ICANN to a continuing resolution in the Senate that would fund the federal government beyond Sept. 30. On Tuesday, the Senate’s GOP leadership offered a resolution without that provision. If Democrats strike down that resolution, an alternative one could include the ICANN issue, though it’s unclear whether the GOP would reintroduce it.
A 'shocking' mess
The misperceptions of how the Internet works stretch far beyond Cruz and Trump.
The political debate “is a shocking, disturbing mess,” says Susan Aaronson, research professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, whose research interests include digital rights and Internet governance. “What we have a is total misunderstanding of the role of the US government over ICANN.”
For decades, US policy has been to eventually privatize the domain naming system. After the leaks of secret emails by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, which exposed the US government’s extensive electronic spying on foreign nations, the Obama administration decided to soothe international fears by letting its contract lapse after September.
Never mind that ICANN had nothing to do with National Security Agency espionage. The move worked, Professor Aaronson says, because other nations perceived that the US government was voluntarily giving up control of a part of the Internet.
In reality, that “control” is symbolic. The National Telecommunications & Information Administration within the US Commerce Department performs a clerical function. One of ICANN’s jobs is to maintain the “root zone file” – the address book for top-level domains, like .com, .gov, and so on. When the .com registry needs another server, it requests that ICANN assign a new Internet Protocol (IP) address for that server. ICANN ensures that all the Internet standards are met and sends it on to the NTIA, which checks and authorizes the work, and then asks another Internet company, Verisign, to add the IP address to the root zone file.
“They [the NTIA] have never rejected a request,” says Jamie Hedlund, vice president of strategic programs at ICANN, even when an authoritarian regime has asked for a domain name. Once the NTIA is no longer involved, ICANN will simply send requests directly to Verisign.
Many cooks. A better broth?
The Internet has no single controlling body. Some authoritarian governments, especially China, intervene to censor the information that reaches their citizens. Another level of Internet oversight is corporate, where an Internet service provider might take down a website for, say, copyright infringement.
Then there is the mind-bending governance of Internet organizations such as ICANN, which in Internet parlance is called multistakeholder. ICANN, for example, has four advisory committees (made up of governments and international treaty organizations, the operators of the 13 root servers at the heart of the Internet, cyber-security experts, and average Internet users). The decisions are made by a 21-member board (15 members can actually vote).
ICANN’s government advisory committee has 172 countries represented, but any one country can veto a recommendation to the board. For Internet experts, accountability rather than foreign influence is the big controversy around ICANN. Some suggest that under a new consensus agreement, ICANN will be more accountable to the user committee. If it can convince enough ICANN advisory committees to go along, the committee can formally reject board actions, which is ultimately enforceable in California courts, where ICANN is located.
Others are skeptical.
“It isn’t clear to me how much accountability ICANN has now,” says Professor Waldo. But domain names are becoming less important as users rely on search to find the content they want. “This is an area dominated by Google, and there seems to be little accountability there,” he adds. “But no one seems to mind.”