Congressional Republicans have recently taken a new hostage in their never-ending stream of threats to shut down the government. This time, their target is the transfer of control of usually unseen clerical functions that keep the internet working. Somehow this arcane transition has become one of the major hurdles to funding the government. So how did we get here?
The story actually started two decades ago when the federal government announced that it would step away from running the technical functions of the internet. Since then the Department of Commerce, under the watch of three Presidents, including administrations of both parties, has been living up to this commitment.
The Obama administration then announced two years ago that it would complete the transition by transferring control of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (or IANA) functions.
These are the functions that allow us to use web addresses rather than long sequences of numbers to find a website — it’s essentially the internet’s phonebook.
The announcement was praised by everyone from the Chamber of Commerce and the Internet Association to public interest groups. But after the administration announced its intention, dictators like Vladimir Putin and his cronies launched a whisper campaign against the U.S. We could not be trusted, they alleged, to follow through with our plan.
Instead, Putin and other like-minded leaders urged the world to have a governmental body such as the United Nations take control of the internet. They would have more sway over internet policy if the internet was regulated by a global governmental body such as the UN than if we are successful with this transition, and the internet becomes fully managed by a global community of experts, led by private businesses.
Fortunately, most of the world dismissed these accusations, choosing instead to believe in the honesty of the United States. A governmental power grab was not necessary. The administration’s plan was better than the risk posed by more Russian control of the internet’s functions.
But some fringe American politicians, led by Senator Ted Cruz, saw the transition as an opportunity to undermine the President. Despite the widespread support for the transfer, they are trying to block it.
As the election approaches, their claims are becoming more outlandish—the transfer would lead to a loss of free speech online (it won’t); it risks national security (it doesn’t); it is against federal law (it’s not).
Most outlandish of all, these Republicans claim that the U.S. is ceding ownership of the internet to the international community. But the U.S. does not own the internet. It never has. In fact, the transition protects the internet from authoritarian control.
This is not just our opinion, as members of Congress who have held hearings on the IANA transition. Nearly every technical expert agrees that Senator Cruz’s claims are simply not true. As the professionals explain, administration of the domain name system is clerical and has nothing to do with manipulating content.
Republicans claim that the U.S. is ceding ownership of the internet to the international community. But the U.S. does not own the internet. It never has.
As Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Strickling recently testified, the Senator’s claims just don’t comport with the facts.
Until recently, Senator Cruz’s crusade has been a lonely one—nearly all of Congress from both parties saw through his over-the-top assertions. Congress held a nearly unified front against his attempts to upend the transfer.
But this political season, anything can happen. During this month’s budget negotiations, Republican leadership took an about-face and is now threatening to fulfill Putin’s Prophecy by postponing the transition. They seem to view a delay as an easy way to mollify their extreme colleagues. But this cynical trade is not worth the risk—the possible consequences are just too great.
If the Republicans successfully delay the transition, America’s enemies are sure to pounce. Russia and its allies could push to shift control of the internet’s core functions to a government body like the U.N. where they have more influence.
Moving internet management to a government-led organization would, over time, politicize how the internet functions, allowing foreign governments, for example, to veto free speech online.
If the transition fails, some governments may also try to create a new numbering system, fracturing the internet as we know it. Such an approach would effectively destroy the “world-wide-web” by creating walled-off pieces of the internet in countries that want to prevent their citizens from communicating with the free world.
Finally, by preventing this transition, we will have failed to keep our long-standing and public commitment to the global community to keep the internet open and free. In short, delaying this transition is a threat to online freedom, global commerce, and American interests broadly.
We urge our colleagues to give up on this ill-conceived attempt to block the transition. Now is not the time to walk away from our convictions. Congress should allow the Department of Commerce to do its job. It should keep the internet intact, and it should maintain America’s integrity.
Editor’s note: Frank Pallone is a U.S. representative from New Jersey and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Brian Schatz is a U.S. senator from Hawaii and ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet; Anna Eshoo is a U.S. representative from California; Chris Coons is a U.S. senator from Delaware and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts; Doris Matsui is a U.S. representative from California; and Mike Doyle is a U.S. representative from Pennsylvania.