Donald Trump’s campaign has waded into a technical debate over the administration of the internet, arguing that a scheduled administrative change amounts to ceding control of the internet “to international interests.”
This argument is, experts say, dead wrong.
What’s going on?
On October 1, oversight of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) — a non-profit organisation that manages certain internet functions — will transfer from the US government to an international consortium of stakeholders.
This has been on the books for years — but some US Republican politicians are now pushing to derail the transfer via a vote in Congress. Spearheading efforts is failed wannabe Republican presidential candidate and Texas senator Ted Cruz, who has warned gravely that “if Congress fails to act, the Obama administration intends to give away control of the internet to an international body akin to the United Nations” — with dangerous consequences for free speech and censorship online.
Trump’s campaign is backing Cruz’s attempts, with Miller saying that “the Republicans in Congress are admirably leading a fight to save the Internet this week, and need all the help the American people can give them to be successful.”
It is, the statement claims, a direct threat to free speech online: “U.S. oversight has kept the Internet free and open without government censorship — a fundamental American value rooted in our Constitution’s Free Speech clause. Internet freedom is now at risk with the President’s intent to cede control to international interests, including countries like China and Russia, which have a long track record of trying to impose online censorship.”
But what’s the truth of the matter?
Experts: Cruz (and Trump) are completely wrong
No, technical experts say: The ICANN move won’t threaten “internet freedom,” or make the web more vulnerable to censorship.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, wrote an article for The Washington Post explaining how authoritarian countries like China and Russia (that Trump and Cruz cite as heightened threats to the internet post-transfer) can censor the internet just fine without using ICANN. The article is targeted at Cruz, but it demolishes the Trump campaign’s statement just as easily. Here’s a key section — emphasis ours:
“Repressive governments expend a great deal of energy censoring speech online — but they do so entirely without ICANN. Those governments oppress their people the old-fashioned way, by disregarding human rights and undermining the rule of law.
“Let’s consider the most egregious threats to free speech and human rights online. Egypt shuts down nearly all Internet traffic during the Arab Spring to disrupt citizen’s right to oppose the government. Pakistan blocks access to entire platforms such as YouTube because they host a few offending videos, with the result that a huge amount of speech is suppressed.
“ICANN had no role in these shutdowns nor could it prevent them. Countries such as China and Iran operate large-scale firewalls controlling nearly all of the Internet’s content within their countries and restricting what information can cross the border. ICANN cannot shut down these firewalls. And Russia routinely mounts attacks on web sites of opposition groups inside and outside the country, leading to suppression of democratic discourse. ICANN has no role in preventing this kind of hacking.”
Speaking to fact-checking site Politifact, ICANN’s chief technology officer David Conrad argued the internet “is comprised of a set of privately operated networks which agree to exchange traffic using a common set of protocols. There is no central point of control of the internet at all. So, the idea that the U.S. is somehow giving up control through a contract that its entire purpose is to allow the administration of a set of identifiers is just sort of ludicrous.”
Not allowing the US contract to expire, and not letting ICANN’s oversight transfer to global stakeholders, will actually harm internet freedom around the world, some claim. By delaying, the US would empower China, Russia, and elsewhere to push for a transfer to a consortium of government representatives rather than private individuals, companies and stake-holders — which would potentially give them more control over the internet.
“I urge you: Do not give a gift to Russia and other authoritarian nations by blocking this transition,” US Commerce Department official Lawrence Strickling told a Senate subcommittee, Reuters reported.
This is political pointscoring at the expense of reality
Ultimately, this is political grandstanding from Cruz — and yet another attempt from the Trump campaign to tie the Obama administration to disgrace and scandal.
Cruz has fine form in the area; back in 2013, he led efforts to successfully (temporarily) shut down the US government over budget concerns relating to Obama’s healthcare plan, “Obamacare.” But more than 80% of Americans disapproved of the shutdown, and as The Register reports, Cruz has been “sidelined” from this year’s ongoing budget discussions by his party.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign statement is peddling technical fantasy, and is demonstrably wrong. “U.S. oversight has kept the Internet free and open without government censorship,” Stephen Miller says. But governments all over the world censor the internet just fine — no input from ICANN required.
It’s also worth noting that many on the far-right believe the internet is being censored by private organisations like Facebook and Twitter. News site Breitbart is one vocal proponent of the idea that social networks are overly censorious — and Stephen Bannon, former chief exec of Breitbart, is now the CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
And Trump hasn’t always been such a stalwart defender of internet freedoms either. In December 2015, the caustic GOP nominee suggested “closing [the internet] up” in response to ISIS propaganda. “We’re losing a lot of people because of the internet … We have to see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening,” Trump said.
“We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that internet up in some ways. Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people.”
“The misguided call for the United States to exert unilateral control over ICANN does nothing to advance free speech because ICANN, in fact, has no power whatsoever over individual speech online. ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — supervises domain names on the Internet. The actual flow of traffic, and therefore speech, is up to individual network and platform operators.”