At the end of this month, the U.S. government is set to give up the last remaining shred of symbolic control it wields over the Internet. That's a good thing, although the change is so minor, Internet users will be hard-pressed to notice it. Nevertheless, some congressional Republicans are trying to stop the hand-off, arguing that the Obama administration's plan would cede control of the Internet to the likes of Russia, China and Iran.
It's curious to see lawmakers who are otherwise zealous promoters of deregulation and free markets argue against privatizing the world's most important communications medium. More important, they're wrong about the facts and wrong about the effect of stopping the planned transition.
Simply put, the U.S. government doesn't control any aspect of the Internet today, and it hasn't for years. Yes, an entity it nominally supervises — the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority — manages the master online address list that organizes the virtual location of sites and services online. And that master list helps assure that the Internet remains an interconnected whole, not splintered into separate regional networks with incompatible addresses and protocols — a key factor in the Internet's transformative power. But the federal government turned over management of the numbers authority long ago to a California not-for-profit organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Significantly, ICANN was created to transfer issues related to Internet addresses and traffic management from the U.S. government into the hands of Internet "stakeholders" — online service providers, data equipment vendors, user groups and the like.
Under a plan worked out over the last two years, the administration is scheduled to hand permanent control over the authority to ICANN after the current contract ends on Sept. 30. But critics led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) argue that doing so would throw the Internet to the wolves, that is, to the leaders of repressive regimes that want to censor and manipulate the Internet. As part of a must-pass spending bill for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, Cruz and company want to block the transfer by denying it funding.
Make no mistake, preserving a free and open Internet should be one of Washington's top priorities. Cruz's argument, however, is ridiculous. The only role the U.S. government plays today is an administrative one, checking to make sure that ICANN follows the correct procedures before any changes to the master list of domains can go into effect. That's hardly the Internet's last defense against the tyranny of despots.
Yet in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about U.S. snooping on global data traffic, a number of less-than-friendly regimes have cited Washington's involvement in the numbering authority as reason to give the rest of the world's governments more control over all aspects of the Internet. That's one of the main reasons the Obama administration has sought to turn the numbering authority over to ICANN — to keep the United Nations or some other intergovernmental organization from claiming authority over the Internet.
In response to the administration's demands for better accountability, ICANN has come up with a plan that gives Internet stakeholders the power to remove ICANN board members who don't carry out their wishes when it comes to domain names and addresses. Governments from around the world could continue to advise ICANN, but those recommendations wouldn't compel a response from the board unless they were effectively unanimous, giving the U.S. what amounts to veto power over hostile proposals made by other countries.
That transition plan is supported by major Internet companies, their trade associations and many tech advocacy groups. If the administration backed away from it now, it would damage U.S. credibility and embolden countries eager to put the Internet's technical functions under the control of world governments — a move that could give countries the tools to censor content outside their borders and fragment the Internet into regional data enclaves. It could also prompt a replay of the foreign backlash against U.S. companies that the Snowden revelations triggered three years ago, when some foreign buyers concerned about Washington's involvement in the Internet turned away from U.S. high-tech products.
In other words, Cruz's crusade to maintain the limited amount of supervision the federal government exercises over Internet addresses could yield the exact opposite of what he says he wants to accomplish. Repressive regimes already wield excessive but imperfect control over the Internet within their borders. To prevent them from gaining even more leverage over global data traffic, the best route is to limit all governments' role in the management of Internet names and addresses. Congress should let the administration give up what little ministerial power it holds over the Internet's technical functions and allow a more accountable ICANN to move forward.