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It is a strange world we are living in when a Democratic President wants to reduce government interference in the private sector and the GOP’s standard bearer for limited government is fighting to stop him. That is what is happening with the continued fight over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and its contract with the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA).
In the spring of 2014, the Obama Administration announced plans to end the contract it has for managing some of the core governance functions that keep the Internet running. The thinking was that the private companies that own and operate the Internet, their user base, and the engineers that work for them should manage the functions involved with keeping the domain name system working via what has become known as the multistakeholder process.
Ted Cruz, the Senator from Texas and now-former presidential candidate, has fought to thwart President Obama at every turn. Oddly, the entire limited government movement has gotten behind continued government intervention. That this movement is doing so over the protests of private companies like Google and Microsoft that are actively advocating for ending this contract is all the more strange. Americans for Limited Government, an advocacy group, has put out a bizarre report condemning ICANN entitled “ICANN Do What I Want” and advocating for continued government oversight.
Let’s be clear about what’s happening: The innovators, entrepreneurs and businesses that drove the Internet to astronomical success are asking for better control over the future of the Internet and Senator Cruz is trying to block them on the grounds that Washington, DC bureaucrats—whom he criticized almost daily during his campaign—need to oversee the management of the Internet.
Senator Cruz is rightly concerned that foreign governments, most notably China and Russia, want to bring the Internet under the control of their governments and other repressive states. What he fails to recognize is that the continuation of U.S. government control makes that outcome all the more likely. Ending the contract was a move designed to keep the functions in the hands of a California-based non-profit that is beyond the reach of those governments.
The functions covered by the contract are routine and administrative. At a basic level, ICANN processes and authenticates requests to make changes to the root zone file, the list of operators of top-level domains like .com or .cn, China’s country-level domain. If China wants to change the IP address for one of its servers, ICANN makes sure the request is from China and not from Internet pranksters. It then passes the information to NTIA to approve, and then passes it to Verisign, which distributes the updated file to the root zone servers around the world.
The root that the U.S. government nominally controls is only the root because everyone agrees that it is. There is quite literally nothing to stop the United Nations from setting up a separate system of root servers and publishing a separate root zone file, thereby fracturing the Internet. The only thing that keeps everyone from using the one that ICANN uses is consensus. Maintaining that consensus is becoming all but impossible with the current contract in place.
When the Clinton administration created ICANN in 1998, they did so with the full intention of eliminating NTIA’s role as the middle man once the support of the government was no longer needed. As far back as 2000, the agreement has been a “zero dollar” contract, with the U.S. government paying ICANN nothing to carry out its functions (ICANN derives fees from website registrars like GoDaddy to cover its costs). In the entire time that NTIA has overseen ICANN, it has never rejected a single change to the root zone file that ICANN wanted to make. Ending the contract simply eliminates a vestigial function within the U.S. Department of Commerce that has become a source of international intrigue.
The best way to protect the Internet from political interests is to take it out of the realm of government and lodge it firmly in the multistakeholder process that entrepreneurs, users, nonprofits, governments, and ICANN built over the last two decades.
The function that NTIA performs has become unnecessary. Advocates of small government and proponents of the private sector should be for, not against, ending this contract. The ultimate irony may be that if Ted Cruz had been elected President and made good on his campaign promise, he would not have just ended this contract but also eliminated the entire Commerce Department and with it NTIA.
Disclosure: Rob Knake worked in the Obama administration on cybersecurity issues and has provided advice on cybersecurity issues to Hillary for America.