A handful of Republican lawmakers led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is waging a last-ditch effort to stop the US government from handing over control over internet domain names to a nonprofit group of global stakeholders in a debate that has become highly politicized.
At a Senate subcommittee meeting Wednesday, Cruz even suggested that Commerce Department employees could face two years in jail for allegedly violating provisions in a government spending bill that prevents the agency from using funds to carry out the transition.
Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Strickling, who was testifying before the committee, fired back in a tense exchange that he was "outraged" by Cruz's suggestion.
"Senator, we have followed the law," he said. "We have not relinquished our responsibility."
The hearing comes just two weeks before the US is set to turn over power of the domain name system, or DNS, from the US Department of Commerce to a multi-stakeholder nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). It's a process that formally began in 2014 and fulfills the government's original vision of its partnership with ICANN when it was created in 1998.
The DNS is one of the core components of the internet. It links every web address to servers using a unique set of numbers, commonly referred to as an IP address.
While most experts in the internet community, including big companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook, support the transfer, the issue has become a political lightning rod in recent months. Cruz and other Republicans, like Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and John Thune (R-South Dakota), worry if the US gives up oversight of the DNS function, it could lead to authoritarian countries taking control of the internet and eventually censoring content throughout the world.
"Imagine an internet run like many Middle Eastern countries that punish what they deem to be blasphemy," Cruz said in opening remarks at the hearing. "Or imagine an internet run like China or Russia that punish and incarcerate those who engage in political dissent."
But many internet experts and Democrats say these fears are misguided and that the issue has been overblown. At the hearing, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) argued, "The United States doesn't own the internet; no one owns the internet." He added that the government's role in how the internet operates is minimal and amounts to a clerical function that has nothing to do with internet censorship.
Strickling who was speaking on behalf of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Göran Marby, the head of ICANN, echoed those comments. They also testified that canceling or delaying the transfer may actually do what Cruz fears most by opening the door for authoritarian regimes to attempt to exert more control over the internet.
"The internet isn't ours to give away," Strickling said. "If Congress blocks this transition, it will only make it more likely the internet will be hijacked by authoritarian interests."
He urged lawmakers not to "give a gift to Russia and other authoritarian nations by blocking this transition."
Marby said that delaying the transition will likely cause world leaders to lose faith in the US and could cause them to push for the United Nations to take control over ICANN's functions. It could also spur other groups to emerge and create their own domain name systems, which he argued would create a more chaotic and less open internet.
Meanwhile, the tech industry backs the White House's plan to hand over duties to ICANN. This week, Google, Twitter, Amazon and other tech companies sent a letter to congressional leaders saying the transition is in the best interest of the US because it will help ensure the internet remains stable.
But Cruz and other Republicans continue to push for a new provision to a government spending bill that could halt the process, which will be complete September 30. Cruz, who was instrumental in shutting down the government in 2013, hasn't indicated whether he's willing to cause a government shutdown over this issue.