Column: No, Mr. Trump, the U.S. is not turning over control of the Internet to Russia and China
Technologies too complex to be easily understood by the layperson can be playgrounds for unscrupulous politicians. That’s become the case with the Internet’s internal digital plumbing, which has come into the crosshairs of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Donald Trump.
Cruz and Trump, along with a passel of other Republicans on Capitol Hill, have decided to throw a conniption fit over a routine, if complicated, transition in the technical governance of the Internet scheduled to take place Saturday — if a last-ditch maneuver in the House of Representatives doesn’t block it.
Cruz and Trump are just spouting nonsense.... A very complicated technical policy problem has been politicized.
Lauren Weinstein, Internet pioneer
The politicians say the transition will give nefarious countries such as Russia, China and Iran the power to take control of the Internet and impose censorship on users in the U.S. and around the world. Trump is hoping to use the issue as a weapon in his presidential campaign by blaming the scheme on President Obama and “Hillary Clinton’s Democrats.” But he and Cruz are wrong — the proposal they’re fighting, not the status quo, is what really will protect free speech on the Internet.
“Cruz and Trump are just spouting nonsense,” says Lauren Weinstein, a networking expert who helped develop the ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor, as a computer science student at UCLA. “A very complicated technical policy problem has been politicized by people who either don’t know what they’re talking about or are purposely misrepresenting the facts.”
Their target is a plan originally developed in 2014 to end the formal relationship between the U.S. Department of Commerce and a key Internet governance group. The governance group is the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which is headquartered in the Playa Vista section of Los Angeles and serves as the traffic manager of Internet site names and addresses; its roles, essentially, are to ensure that Internet addresses aren’t duplicated, and to supervise the management of domains such as the traditional .com and .edu and the creation of novel domains such as .biz or .xxx.
The government’s plan is to allow a contract giving the Commerce Department nominal oversight of ICANN to lapse Sept. 30. To the average Internet user, the transition will be undetectable; the Web will operate entirely as before.
In policy terms, however, the transition is significant. The U.S. government’s relationship with ICANN has increasingly caused friction with the Internet’s multitudinous stakeholders, including other governments, businesses and the technical community.
Maintaining the contract didn’t seem worth the hassle. Commerce couldn’t exercise effective control over ICANN — any effort to strong-arm the organization would have inspired a global uproar. ICANN has no authority over Internet content or government policies within borders; it can’t stop Russia or China from imposing censorship on their own citizens, and they’re unable to export censorship externally. ICANN manages technical standards, but it’s unable to shut down websites or make it easier for them to launch.
As Jonathan Zittrain, an Internet expert at Harvard who has served on an ICANN advisory committee, observed in 2014 after the Obama White House issued its transition plan, ICANN had virtually no authority over how Internet users behaved online. You could register the website www.gap.clothing “through an ICANN-approved process,” he wrote; but ICANN would have no jurisdiction if you “sell fake Gap clothing on your website goodclothes.clothing.”
The organization’s own board is multifaceted, comprising business executives, engineers, government aides, and public advocates; its chairman, Steve Crocker, was one of ARPANET’s original architects.
It’s worth observing, too, that the U.S. government’s very role in the network’s management was sort of an accident of history, reflecting more the informality of Internet governance in its early days than any plan for permanent control.
In that era, the network’s builders realized that even though the network was growing slowly as a system linking academic and technical computer departments, it would be a good idea to keep a master list of names and numbers and conventions that were part of the infrastructure. That task fell almost by default to a graduate computer science student named Jonathan Postel, who performed it largely manually as a “side task” to his work at the Information Sciences Institute of the University of Southern California. To Postel, who is little known to the public but is a hero to the first generation of Internet builders, the job was “much more one of coordination than of control,” he told a congressional committee in 1997.
By then Postel had become the de facto chief record keeper of the Internet. When he died suddenly in 1998, authorities scrambled to replace him. Again almost by default, the Commerce Department ended up as the agency recognizing ICANN as the new keeper of the root records. The agency reached an agreement with ICANN “spelling out certain minimal responsibilities — and a nominal way for the U.S. government to pull the plug if something went terribly wrong,” Zittrain recalled.
That role is now an anachronism. The goal of true Internet freedom, the online community recognizes, is served by governments having “a say but not a veto or control,” says Chris Calabrese of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology. That means decoupling ICANN from the U.S. government.
What would happen if the transition is blocked? Internet advocates fear that control would end up in the hands of a United Nations agency, which would leave governments in a dominant role and could subject decisions to more political interference, not less.
Whether Cruz and Trump understand this, or even care, is doubtful. It’s more likely that they’re exploiting public ignorance to promote a conventional nationalistic agenda. In other words, they’re pandering.
The Trump campaign’s statement last week aligning itself with Cruz gave the game away. “The U.S. created, developed and expanded the Internet across the globe,” it said on its website. “U.S. oversight has kept the Internet free and open without government censorship.”
Well, no. The Internet expanded globally without any help from the U.S., but precisely because it detached itself from government control. The U.S. role in developing the Internet doesn’t give it any right to control this global network in perpetuity.
U.S. oversight hasn’t had any success in keeping the Internet free from government censorship within such countries as Russia and China, and blocking the transition won’t improve the situation one tiny bit. But it could very well make things worse. Do Cruz and Trump care so little about that that they’re willing to allow it just to advance their own political careers?