U.S. Markets closed

No, Ted Cruz, the US isn't giving away the internet

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, addresses the delegates during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Wednesday, July 20, 2016. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

A small band of Republican lawmakers is engaged in a fierce, last-minute fight to force the Obama administration to retain its authority over part of the internet.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The unlikely spectacle of Republicans battling to preserve government control shows that you can make an argument out of anything in Washington — at least, if the White House offers an opinion about it first.

Yes we ICANN

The story as pitched by Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) and others looks bad: The US will abandon its historic supervision of a core part of the internet, leaving it open for other countries to swoop in.

“The Obama administration intends to give away control of the internet to an international body akin to the United Nations,” Cruz warns in a video posted on his site. “Do we want China and Russia and Iran to have the power to determine if a web site is unacceptable?”

To stop that, Cruz and other Republicans are trying to attach a rider to the continuing resolution—the spending bill needed to keep the government in business—that would halt the transition.

But the actual power at stake and the organization involved amount to far less than that. Cruz and other GOP opponents who put this concern in the 2016 Republican platform are making a Panama Canal out of a molehill—and unlike the US handing over that facility to Panama, here we yield nothing of real value.

Small ball

Instead, the plan that the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced in March of 2014 covers something much less important: administrative oversight of the domain name system that routes you to sites when you enter their addresses.

NTIA doesn’t create or delete websites names like yahoo.com, nor does it have any say in the creation of new top-level domains (the “.com” in yahoo.com). That power was handed off by the Feds to a California non-profit called the internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) back in 1998.

So, what will it mean when NTIA cedes its remaining oversight at the end of the month?

Nothing.

The internet will continue to function just as it does now.

Both tech companies (Yahoo Finance’s publisher Yahoo included) and interest groups have supported the move. And firms that deal directly in domain names see no problem either.

“ICAAN has been effectively overseeing this for years,” wrote Andrew Miller, founder of the domain-name broker ATM Holdings.

An executive with a domain-name registry expressed zero worries, calling Cruz’s worries of a foreign takeover “a misnomer.”

Indeed, foreign governments already tried and failed at a takeover in 2012, when some teamed up with the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union to move domain-name-system governance to the ITU. If that had passed, the ITU could have been able to decide what top-level-domains get created, or restrict the content hosted on new ones.

The US and other opponents walked out of that event, killing the proposal. And the current transition specifically bars ICANN from allowing a future takeover.

“Going through with the transition is simply the best way to ensure that the internet stays out of the hands of a multilateral organization” like the ITU, wrote Eli Dourado, director of the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

Dourado emphasized that none of this is new. “We’ve been through a two-year process implementing a plan that’s been anticipated since 1998.”

ICANN issues

People who will defend this transition can just as readily criticize ICANN. That organization has at times looked like a fine example of crony capitalism, raking in fees from domain registries while expanding its own income sources by authorizing the creation of dozens of new top-level domains.

The aforementioned domain-registry executive, for instance, griped about ICANN being overly protective of trademarks and other kinds of intellectual property. Miller noted the risk of its dispute-resolution mechanisms being gamed, although he allowed that this could get worse without Washington’s oversight.

But US government oversight hasn’t helped to solve those problems. Under the transition, ICANN member organizations will at least gain some new authority over its board via a new “Empowered Community” body — while the US will keep an effective veto over major changes to ICANN’s role.

And the .gov and .mil domains that government and military sites use will stay under American control. What we’re left with is mainly procedural concerns (as outlined in a paper from the libertarian group TechFreedom) that Congress can address (as the R Street Institute, a free-market-minded think tank, explained in its own summary).

In a worst-case scenario, network administrators can work around ICANN interference, as Dourado argued in June. It remains fundamentally difficult to cut somebody off of the internet.

Meanwhile, stalling on this handover gives people a reason to complain about the U.S. claiming ownership of what has long since become a global medium — remember that the web was invented by a Brit working in a Swiss lab, Tim Berners-Lee.

Holding on to government authority that we don’t exercise doesn’t make us stronger, it just makes us look selfish. And it leaves the door open for a future US administration to pick up that power and start abusing it.

More from Rob:

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.