Glenn Beck warned his audience yesterday that President Obama is “giving away the Internet,” quite possibly as part of some kind of plot involving George Soros. (Don’t ask me to explain; Beck’s theories are generally incomprehensible to me.)
As it happens, Beck’s concerns aren’t just coming out of nowhere. As Bloomberg Politics reported this week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a prominent Beck ally, is on a “crusade” over Internet governance and domain names.
The Texas Republican senator’s latest crusade is to block an Obama administration plan to give up U.S. oversight of domain names to international supervision, warning in a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday that could be a threat to freedom. He warned against giving power to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers [ICANN], a private non-profit group based in Los Angeles.“Imagine an internet run like China or Russia, that punish and incarcerate those who engage in political dissent,” Cruz said. Earlier on the Senate floor, Cruz said he didn’t want “to tell our children and our children’s children what it was once like when the internet wasn’t censored, wasn’t in the control of the foreign governments.”
This isn’t just some passing area of interest for the right-wing Texan: Congress has until the end of the month to pass a spending bill that would prevent a government shutdown, and Cruz is considering a plan to add a provision to the bill blocking the ICANN policy – even if means making a shutdown more likely.
“Can Ted Cruz and Republicans dream up an any more obscure and irrelevant issue to stop the business of the American government?” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked this week?
Even putting this aside for a moment, it’s also worth pausing to appreciate the fact that the White House isn’t putting the Internet “in the control of the foreign governments.”
We first covered this a couple of years ago, when a handful of Republicans started circulating the same talking points Cruz and Beck used this week. It prompted The New Republic to run a helpful piece from Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard, explaining the policies surrounding the Internet’s plumbing.
[In March 2014], the U.S. government announced that it would seek to relinquish a privileged role in the management of Internet names and numbers. An organization called ICANN – the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – is to continue doing what it’s doing without maintaining an ongoing contract with the Department of Commerce to do it.And what does ICANN do? It helps keep IP addresses in order, ensuring that each address – used to let parties on the Internet identify one another – is not assigned more than once. And it facilitates the addition of “top level domains,” those suffixes like .com, .org, .uk, and more recently, .clothing, which, with a concatenation of names to their left, become the names for nearly all online destinations…. A receding role for the U.S. government has been anticipated for over a decade, and the move is both wise and of little impact.
As we discussed at the time, Zittrain’s piece explained all of this in helpful detail – including why fears over Chinese or Russian control don’t really make sense – but it’s worth re-emphasizing that the transition away from U.S. control was planned for and inevitable. It’s not that Americans have done a poor job – on the contrary, we’ve been fine stewards – but the phase out was baked into the cake in the late ’90s. By all indications, the system is stable and ready to lose the Commerce Department’s training wheels.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters this week, “Internet experts, scientists, business leaders, technology experts all agree that this is the most effective approach and the right thing for the long-term security and well-being of the Internet. So, that’s the approach that we’re intending to pursue. We’ll see what kind of tricks Senator Cruz has up his sleeve.”
Postscript: I find it ironic that when the subject is net neutrality, congressional Republicans routinely cry, “The U.S. government can’t control the Internet!” When the subject is ICANN, those same congressional Republicans proudly declare, “The U.S. government must control the Internet!”