On Wednesday, Trump's campaign came out against an Obama administration plan to relinquish U.S. control of one important aspect of the internet: the supervision of domain names. The plan is to remove the U.S. government control of that function and transfer it more fully to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, a global body.
Trump’s sometime-nemesis Sen. Ted Cruz is threatening to hold the government-spending bill hostage unless Congress rejects Obama’s plan. Cruz wrongly states that the ICANN transition would “empower countries like Russia, China and Iran to be able to censor speech on the internet, your speech.”
On this Trump agrees. “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,” a Trump campaign spokesman said in a statement. “Congress needs to act, or internet freedom will be lost for good, since there will be no way to make it great again once it is lost.”
But Trump and Cruz are wrong. In an Op-Ed published in the Washington Post, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Daniel Weitzner write, “ICANN, in fact, has no power whatsoever over individual speech online… The actual flow of traffic, and therefore speech, is up to individual network and platform operators."
They should know. Berners-Lee is credited with creating the standard that opened the World Wide Web to everyone with an idea and a connection. Weitzner, as director of the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative, has devoted his career to protecting the global free flow of information online.
According to Berners-Lee and Weitzner:
“The global consensus at the heart of the internet exists by virtue of trust built up over decades with people from all over the world collaborating on the technical design and operation of the network and the web. ICANN is a critical part of this global consensus. But if the United States were to reverse plans to allow the global internet community to operate ICANN independently, as Sen. Cruz is now proposing, we risk undermining the global consensus that has enabled the internet to function and flourish over the last 25 years.”Berners-Lee and Weitzner aren't politicians. Scare-mongering for political gain isn’t their thing. The opposite is true for Trump and Cruz, whose ignorance about internet policy is on par with their desire to win points by spreading fear about internet censorship.
But it’s Trump who has repeatedly threatened to shut down the internet to keep Americans safe from terrorists. He's offered few specifics about how this might be acheived.
Cruz fashions himself as a champion of internet freedom, but pushes initiatives that would actually undermine the open internet. Earlier this year, he signed on to legislation that would take away Net Neutrality protections, which ensure that internet users can connect and communicate with anyone else online. His campaign against ICANN may succeed in grinding a divided Congress to a halt, but his censorship concerns aren't remotely valid.
Scare tactics aside, the transfer to ICANN will have no influence over the internet-censorship decisions of countries like China, Iran, Russia and Turkey. The repressive behavior of these countries is a huge problem, but it’s not tied to the service that manages domain names.
Is it too much to expect any politician who dabbles in internet policy to know something about the internet? A little knowledge can go a long way toward keeping the network small “d” democratic, open and available to everyone.