Many people do not understand how the internet works — I’d wager it’s the vast majority of its 3.4 billion users — and that’s fine, because they’re not trying to legislate it. Ted Cruz does not understand how the internet works, and he is trying to legislate it.
On September 30, the U.S. government’s contract with ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ends — a separation that was put into motion after the Snowden leaks brought renewed speculation over how much the U.S. could meddle with the internet’s underlying structure.
ICANN is a nonprofit multinational organization that performs the clerical work required to administrate the internet. In particular, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority doles out IP addresses and coordinates what is known as the DNS Root Zone, a database of top-level domains. It is what allows you to type facebook.com into the address bar and get taken to the Facebook site.
The internet, as important as it is now, was built up gradually by a relatively small group of computer scientists. For much of its early life, the DNS root was managed part-time by just two people, Jon Postel and Joyce Reynolds.
This is all a bit tough to boil down, but the main point is this: ICANN administrates how the internet works; it does not have any say in what can or cannot be distributed across it. In other words, it has no editorial control.
So when Ted Cruz raises a stink about giving control of the internet over to China and Russia, he is acting in a dangerously ignorant manner.
From the New York Times:
“Imagine an internet run like many Middle Eastern countries, that punish what they deem to be blasphemy,” Mr. Cruz warned in a Senate hearing he led earlier this week. “Or imagine an internet run like China or Russia, that punish and incarcerate those that engage in political dissent.”
Sounds bad! Good thing that’s not at all what is happening here. Cruz’s incorrect assumption is that the United States government controls the internet, and at first glance, I guess I understand that. In reality, the internet is administered (not edited, not filtered) by a small number of people in organizations like ICANN and the Internet Engineering Task Force. To give you a sense of just how loosely the IETF operates, it’s semi-annual meetings are open and decisions are made by rough consensus — members literally hum to signal preference. If a government really wanted to infiltrate these groups, the opportunities are already there.
What Cruz is really doing is political grandstanding in order to make the current presidential administration look bad. And just as he did with the federal government shutdown in 2013, Cruz’s ill-advised, drastic measures could have dire consequences. If he were to turn control of the internet into an international controversy, other countries might take action themselves. The network could fall under the auspices of United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union, bringing regulatory red tape and international meddling — exactly the opposite of Cruz’s aims. In arguing for internet freedom, Ted Cruz is, hypocritical to himself and his party, arguing for more government oversight.