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Ted Cruz Is Picking A Big Fight Over The Internet, And Top Republicans Are Backing Him

The former presidential hopeful and more than two dozen allies in Congress want the US to retain oversight of the Web's domain name system, but experts say that would embolden Russia and other authoritarian governments.

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Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has a new battle to fight in the Senate: trying to block the long-planned transfer of the internet's technical management from the US government to an international body. Cruz is calling the move an internet “giveaway” and warns that it will open the Web to Russian, Chinese, and Iranian manipulation. But experts say blocking the transition would actually accomplish what Cruz fears, by undermining the stability and credibility of the internet’s current, long-standing stewardship model.

The internet is a complex network beyond the control of any one country, but one part of it — its global domain naming system, which allows you to type one unique Web address that takes you to the right site no matter where you are in the world — is technically under the control of the US Commerce Department. Since 1998, the Commerce Department has been contracting out this responsibility to an international nonprofit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). However, the internet’s creators envisioned it as a space free from the interventions of governments — including the United States. So that vision led to plans for the Commerce Department to remove itself as the middleman and cede its management role to ICANN entirely on Oct. 1.

Sen. Cruz and his allies in Congress are arguing that if the domain name system switches to new management, antagonistic foreign governments might censor what people see online, undermining the openness of the Web. But during a contentious hearing in the Senate Wednesday, a top Commerce Department official and the President of ICANN dismissed Cruz’s concerns of Russian, Chinese, and Iranian manipulation of the Web.

Cruz has been at the center of quixotic quests to block Obama Administration efforts before — including in 2013, when efforts to defund Obamacare led to a government shutdown — but he often did it to the chagrin of party leadership. This time, however, he’s been quite successful gathering support on Capitol Hill. Cruz counts more than two dozen lawmakers as allies in opposition to the transfer of management to ICANN, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, whose office confirmed to BuzzFeed News that Republicans are working on a provision to delay the transfer by attaching a provision to a short-term spending bill that must pass by Sept. 30 for the government to remain open.

“Imagine an internet run like many Middle Eastern countries, that punish what they deem to be blasphemy,” Cruz said, predicting what might happen if the transition happens. “Or imagine an internet run like China or Russia, that punish and incarcerate those that engage in political dissent.” To illustrate his point, Cruz hypothesized that ICANN, if it was no longer answerable to the US government, could take down a website for political purposes. But Lawrence Strickling, a high-ranking official in the Commerce Department who testified at the hearing, rejected Cruz’s line of argument. “You’re not positing a realistic scenario,” Strickling said. “ICANN would never be involved.”

Representatives from ICANN say that Cruz and his allies’ concerns about a loss of internet sovereignty or political manipulation stem from a misunderstanding of what internet management means in practice. “No one controls the internet,” said ICANN president and CEO Göran Marby during the same hearing. The stewardship of the domain name system has “nothing to do with content or freedom of expression,” he said. While forms of internet censorship like government filtering, blocking, and traffic monitoring occur in many parts of the world, these practices operate on a different layer of the internet, not in the naming system that ICANN manages.

“We don’t determine ... what can or cannot be on a website,” Theresa Swinehart, a senior advisor to Marby, told BuzzFeed News. “We don’t play a role in anything other than making sure the addressing function actually works, so that you can get to a certain website.”

A Commerce Department official argued that Cruz's plan to block the transfer of internet stewardship would actually be "a gift to Russia."

Proponents of the transfer say that the transition to a multi-stakeholder model has been decades in the making. ICANN’s stewardship, they say, will continue the inclusive, globally oriented framework of the Web.

The Commerce Department’s Strickling also argued that blocking the transfer of internet stewardship would actually be “a gift to Russia,” emboldening it and other countries who are vying for a government-controlled management system, rather one overseen by ICANN. “If this transition doesn’t go forward, our credibility as a power in terms of supporting the multi-stakeholder model will be shot,” he said. “There will be people who say that the United States has reneged on its promises, and [this] will be exploited by these foreign governments.”

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, insisted that the Obama administration has not properly vetted the transition. He said significant questions remain about the hand over, including the possible unconstitutional transfer of US government property, as well as human rights and free speech issues.

“It’s clear that the administration hasn’t conducted a thorough legal analysis of many issues outstanding,” he said. Congressional debate on the spending bill that may include the provision to defund the ICANN transition is expected to begin later this week, as lawmakers continue to hammer out the details of a short-term government funding package.

Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.

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