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Why US internet controls became a political battlefield (FAQ)

CNET demystifies the controversy over an Obama administration plan to relinquish the last scraps of government control over the internet.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz voices concerns about internet governance and freedom of speech.​

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz voices concerns about internet governance and freedom of speech.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

To hear the rhetoric, you'd think Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to take over the internet on October 1.

That's the date the US Commerce Department has said it will transfer a final aspect of internet governance to a nonprofit international group called ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). Under the plan, the US government will cede its existing oversight to a broad group of stakeholders including governments, businesses and technical experts. The Obama administration has been pushing this privatization plan for two years, but it began in 1997 under Bill Clinton's presidency and continued through that of his successor, George W. Bush.

But on Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican and chief opponent of the plan, held a congressional hearing that could be the last loud attempt to stop the transition. "Under the guardianship of the United States and the First Amendment, the internet has become truly an oasis of freedom. But that could soon change," Cruz said at the hearing.

Sounds bad. But the technical experts who've actually been involved in running the internet for years worry that Cruz's attempt to preserve internet freedoms through US government control could backfire. Instead of preserving freedoms, it actually could undermine the decentralized approach that's helped the internet thrive. Specifically, it could shift governance powers away from ICANN, technical experts and other involved organizations -- and toward the very government-led United Nations telecommunications organization that China, Russia and others already have explicitly backed as an alternative.

The UN does important telecommunications work. But the internet was built from the bottom up, and governmental edicts come from the top down. That risks saddling the internet with a control system ill-equipped to handle technical matters and too slow for issues like new security threats and digital currency.

Yes, it's a mess. The intersection of technology and politics can get pretty ugly, as we've seen with phone privacy, net neutrality, government surveillance and copyright laws. So here are some answers to clarify the issue.

Does the US government run the internet?
No. Despite Cruz's assertion that the ICANN transition plan is "President Obama's internet giveaway," the US government doesn't run the internet and hasn't done so for decades. Through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration starting in the 1960s, the US government funded the work that created the internet, and through the National Science Foundation, it later helped operate it. But control over the internet has long since shifted to a loose collection of largely self-appointed groups and companies around the globe.

Like who?
Countless researchers and engineers develop the standards to govern how devices communicate on the network. They work at companies and universities and show up for meetings of the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) and other groups that chart the internet's course. That work includes everything from dramatically increasing the number of devices that can connect to the internet to expanding internet domains beyond mainstays like .com and .net to hundreds of new ones such as .beer, .movie and .pizza.

Operations are distributed among organizations such as mobile phone carriers, internet service providers and internet "backbone" companies that haul data around the globe. If Egyptian authorities decide they want to shut down the internet or the Chinese government builds its Great Firewall to keep its citizens from seeing censored information, those governments do so by exerting control over local network operators and there's nothing the US can do about it.

So how is the government involved in the internet?
OK, time for a little background.

One core part of the internet is the Domain Name System (or DNS). Each device on the internet communicates using a numeric address, but we use more convenient names like "cnet.com" for activities such as email and web browsing, and the DNS translates those human-readable names into the numbers. If you launch a new company and register its internet domain, the change is made on a collection of 13 central computers called the DNS root servers. Those changes then propagate to thousands of other machines that actually do most of the DNS grunt work.

Under a contract with the Commerce Department, ICANN oversees changes to the root server files. The department checks to make sure ICANN followed its procedures properly when doing so.

ICANN logo

Why is this even an issue?
Brace yourself for a Scrabble game's worth of abbreviations. But don't worry, it'll only last a moment.

Since 1997, US presidents have been trying to privatize the government's remaining involvement in internet oversight. The Commerce Department's NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) holds the ICANN contract to run operations collectively called IANA (the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) that includes maintaining DNS core files, ensuring internet device addresses work globally and cataloging details of protocols that define how internet communications take place.

In 2014, Lawrence Strickling, the Commerce Department assistant secretary who serves as NTIA administrator, kicked the transition plan into high gear. ICANN, in cooperation with many governments and groups around the world, proposed a plan to transfer the US government's IANA stewardship to a broad group of stakeholders. Strickling hoped to finish by September 30, 2015, but after refining the proposal and facing opposition from Republican leaders including Newt Gingrich, the government extended ICANN's contract another year. The current contract expires September 30. Another renewal was possible, but Strickling decided to go ahead with the plan to transfer more authority to ICANN, amended to address concerns and ensure governmental influence isn't too strong.

What's the rush?
Cruz argues that the administration and ICANN are being hasty, but aside from the fact that US presidential administrations have supported the plan for nearly two decades, there are international political reasons for the US to cut ICANN loose. Russia and China, among others, have backed the idea of empowering an obscure United Nations body called the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) with internet governance duties. That would give governments control -- but also diminish the relative importance of tech powers like the US. And it would demote technical organizations like the IETF and Internet Architecture Board (IAB).

Strickling denies a political connection, but Edward Snowden's leaks about US internet surveillance activities certainly didn't help the US persuade other countries that it should keep special powers. "There is no question that Edward Snowden's revelations have stimulated the dialog," former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said in 2014, at that year's World Economic Forum. "I saw leader after leader of major companies like GE sincerely worried about the trust factor on the internet...The trust in the ecosystem has been punctured a little bit."

Meanwhile, the internet governance transition plan has helped bring around some 89 countries that had been in favor of ITU stewardship, Strickling said. "Almost 30 of those 89 countries have now demonstrated their support for multistakeholder governance of the domain name system," Strickling testified Wednesday.

What happens to free speech under the transition plan?
Cruz fears free speech on the internet could be wiped out as ICANN falls under the sway of Russia, China and Iran: "When ICANN escapes from government authority, ICANN escapes from having to worry about the First Amendment, from having to worry about protecting your rights or my rights," he said at the hearing.

Commerce Department Assistant ​Secretary Lawrence Strickling

Commerce Department Assistant Secretary Lawrence Strickling

Department of Commerce

Hogwash, counters ICANN. "There is nothing about ICANN or its contract with the US government that prevents a country from censoring or blocking content within its own borders. ICANN is a technical organization and does not have the remit or ability to regulate content on the internet," ICANN said. "That is true under the current contract with the US government and will remain true without the contract with the US government."

Does Cruz have any allies?
Yes. Some conservatives such as Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican who represents Iowa. Golf club maker Karsten Manufacturing Corporation, sore with ICANN over an expensive disagreement concerning its Ping trademark (PDF), also has signed on. More moderately, some observers have raised concerns about whether ICANN will be truly accountable in its more independent role. "It would be prudent to develop experience with the new governance model during a trial period before the transition is made irrevocable," Paul Rosenzweig (PDF) of Red Branch Consulting, testified Wednesday at the hearing.

What can Cruz do besides make speeches about the issue?
Rallying the troops through speeches, tweets and Facebook posts can be important. But Cruz also has introduced legislation, the Protecting Internet Freedom Act, that would shift control over the transition from the administration to Congress. He's tried to build the legislation into a funding bill that would make it harder to block.

How about the ICANN side?
Along with Democratic supporters like Rep. Nancy Pelosi from California and countries like Germany, an impressive slate of tech companies side with ICANN's transition proposal. Those include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo and Twitter, which publicized their support for the transition this week (PDF). "We believe that this important proposal will assure the continuing security, stability and resiliency of this system. Furthermore, crucial safeguards are in place to protect human rights, including the freedom of speech."

In his testimony, Strickling echoed that free-speech argument. "Show your trust in the private sector and the work of American and global businesses and civil society who have delivered a thoughtful and consensus plan," he urged Congress. "Do not give a gift to Russia and other authoritarian nations by blocking this transition."