At the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, Ted Cruz delivered a controversial speech. Most of it was about freedom and party differences, but did you know that Cruz also has strong views about the technical bodies that oversee the internet? Welp, he does.
Nestled in a list of superficial policy points, Cruz said, “The internet? Keep it free from taxes, free from regulation. And don’t give it away to Russia and China.” Seems weird, but here’s what he’s really referencing.
The U.S. government currently oversees the nonprofit group Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. This organization assigns and manages domain names and basically maintains fundamental order online. The Obama administration has been working on an initiative for a few years that would allow an international coalition of stakeholders to replace the U.S. as the steward of some of ICANN’s key functions under the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA. The idea is that this would more closely align with the fundamental principles of internet openness, instead of relying on one nation state as some type of moral arbiter.
As computer scientist and internet standards pioneer Jon Postel said in testimony to the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Technology in 1998, “There was one issue on which there seemed to be almost unanimity [among internet stakeholders]: the Internet should not be managed by any government, national or multinational.”
As you might have guessed, Cruz opposes this plan. He fears that it will allow authoritarian governments like oh, you know, Russia and China, to censor the internet internationally like they do within their own countries. In August 2015, Cruz told Wall Street Journal opinion writer L. Gordon Crovitz, “It’s a key issue that the U.S. not give away control of the Internet to a body under the influence and possible control of foreign governments.”
This is not what the transition plan proposes, though. The multistakeholder organization overseeing ICANN would incorporate not only a diverse set of government representatives but also private sector groups. One statement of support for the transition, signed by organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology, referenced a letter from Sens. Cruz, Lankford, and Lee to the Department of Commerce (which holds the United States’ current contract with ICANN). “While we share the Senators’ stated desire to protect Internet freedom, we note that their proposed solution of delaying the IANA transition will unintentionally have exactly the effect they hope to avoid: Delay would incur risk of increasing the role for foreign governments over the Internet and undermine free speech.” The statement added that it found the senators’ concerns “puzzling” because they are so contrary to the stated mission of the transition plan.
Cruz has a strange track record when it comes to internet openness. Though he’s fighting so hard to, by his estimation, protect the internet from influence and censure, he opposed the Federal Communications Commission’s recent efforts to uphold net neutrality principles by reclassifying broadband as a utility. In a 2014 Washington Post opinion piece, Cruz wrote, “Net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet. It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.” To borrow the word used above, this stance was puzzling for its sheer inaccuracy. Net neutrality itself aims to achieve everything Cruz is concerned about protecting.
A weird stance on internet freedom is just the beginning when it comes to unpacking the fallout from Cruz’s RNC speech. You have to give the guy credit for being passionate about the issue, though. He even made a (very misleading) video for crying out loud.