I heard Ted Cruz huffing and puffing about how the United States was giving control of the internet to the Chinese or something. Is that right?
There are several ways to answer that question, but all of them come down to this: Ted Cruz had no idea what he was talking about.
To understand why, though, you first have to know what we’re talking about when we talk about internet governance.
OK, I’ll bite. What’s internet governance?
There are several ways to answer that question, but at the core, to talk about internet governance is to talk about the complex system of relationships and regulations that allow all those computers to communicate. Internet governance can also encompass other things, like the ways we get online in the first place, the physical infrastructure through which our data travels, and the kinds of data we can consume or exchange.
Which of those was Cruz talking about?
In a video he made on the topic earlier this year, Cruz claimed, “Right now the Obama administration is trying to push through a radical proposal to give away control of the internet to foreign countries.” That sounds scary, but the plan he was criticizing was actually far narrower in scope. It was nothing more and nothing less than an initiative to end U.S. government oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles.
ICANN, as it’s known, has a narrow set of responsibilities. Since 1998, it’s been largely in charge of the policies and procedures that underlie website domain names: ICANN makes sure that you can get to Slate’s website by hitting up slate.com instead of having to remember the lengthy IP address. (ICANN doesn’t handle the actual connections between names and numbers—a whole host of other companies deal with that.)
This job is critical to the smooth functioning of the web, but ICANN itself has a limited purview. You can watch a video—featuring Vint Cerf, who invented the internet—further explaining how it works here, but it comes down to this: ICANN helps us manage the complexity of the internet without actually interfering in what’s going on. It’s simply responsible for what it calls “interoperability,” making sure that different networks use the same naming conventions so that we can find what we’re looking for on them—while also managing systems such as WHOIS, which provides information about the ownership and registration history of a given site.
Experts like to say that ICANN is a clerical institution—not the secret master of the internet, so much as its cataloger.
What was Cruz so upset about then?
Depending on how you look at it, the United States was sort of in control of all this stuff at one point. While ICANN itself is nongovernmental, the U.S. Department of Commerce long had a supervisory role over it, a connection that dates back to the origins of the internet in military defense research. Thanks to the internet’s increasingly global status—and arguably in light of Edward Snowden’s leaked revelations about government surveillance—the Obama administration has moved to end that largely ceremonial connection, setting ICANN free to do its own thing, which basically means inviting it to go on doing what it was already doing anyway! That transition has been underway since 2014, and the administration has argued that it’s a matter of internet freedom, “because it ensures the Internet remains accountable to the people, businesses, and organizations that use it.”
To describe it in the simplest terms possible, the U.S. didn’t give up control of the internet when it ended its formal relationship with ICANN because ICANN never controlled the internet in the first place.
Who does run the internet, then?
Oh, that one’s easy. Subterranean lizard people.
No, you’re not.
Fair. The real answer is that no one runs the internet as such, largely because a host of different authorities—governmental and otherwise—manage elements under different circumstances. That’s at least partially a consequence of the demands of interoperability: If you’re going to make sure that everyone’s computers can talk to one another, you can’t exert all that much control over what they say to one another or how they say it.
Not everyone likes that, though. Xi Jinping, president of China, for example, has aggressively lobbied for something called internet sovereignty. The idea there is that individual countries should be able to regulate how the internet works within their own territories. That would allow them to regulate and restrict both what people can access when they go online and the way they access it.
Those who believe that internet access as such should be a human right—and that information should flow freely—tend to oppose such ideas, because they make it easier for nations to censor or otherwise restrict data flowing in and out of countries. This is the stuff Ted Cruz is, in his confused way, worried about. Countries that restrict the internet within their borders mostly do so by establishing finite choke points, which allow them to block sites, monitor social media traffic, and so on. For instance, Iran has banned Pokémon Go. More famous (and elaborate) is the Great Firewall of China. (If you’re interested in hearing more about internet freedom issues, Global Voices Advocacy’s Netizen Report appears weekly in Future Tense.)
It comes down to this: You’re already going to experience the internet differently in different places, but some countries are trying to make their right to establish and uphold those differences an international norm.
Still, if I’m not in Iran or China or some other restrictive nation, the internet I get is completely free and clear, right?
Not necessarily. Think about where you’re getting your information from when you go online. You probably get a lot of your news and information from Facebook, Google, and other platforms. If you take the time to read those sites’ terms and conditions, you’ll find they often place a variety of limitations on self-expression.
To name but one frustrating example, Facebook’s rules have placed severe restraints on trans peoples’ use of the platform the past by obliging them to employ their “legal” names rather than those that are most resonant for them. And though accusations of liberal bias against Facebook were probably overblown, controversies about its trending news section also speak to the ways that it shapes the experience of its users. It’s not just Facebook, either: Google’s algorithms may well encode political biases that could shape electoral politics in ways far subtler than anything Russian hackers have attempted.
That we know about!
Anyway, the point is that even when they’re not overtly oppressive, those sorts of restrictions and filters constitute a form of governance, one that we don’t always think of as such—probably because we’re still accustomed to the offline expectation that governments set the standards by which we live.
Haven’t these companies been pretty responsive to complaints, though? In one way or another, they’ve mostly worked to respond to the problems you mentioned.
They have, but things threaten to get a little fuzzier when those same companies start to become not just destinations online, but our portals onto the internet. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has attempted to help bring the internet to the developing world through a program his company calls Free Basics. It allows users to access a relatively small handful of sites—ones that Facebook has given the thumbs up to—without racking up mobile data charges. Many mobile providers throughout the world already employ such tactics, as T-Mobile does when it lets customers play Pokémon Go (who knew the game would be such an internet governance flashpoint?) and use select media streaming apps without the data counting toward limits.
Known as zero-rating services, such initiatives are controversial because they allow commercially oriented companies to shape what we can and cannot see online. This too arguably constitutes a sly form of governance: By funneling our internet consumption according to economic dictates that we don’t control, they’re structuring our online lives in ways that don’t require any sort of legal or political mandate.
At least they’re not working with governments, though, right?
In some cases they are! Activists such as Rebecca MacKinnon have tallied up examples in which technology companies have censored their own products and services on behalf of governmental interests. (MacKinnon is the director of New America’s Ranking Digital Rights project; New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) MacKinnon points, for example, to Apple excising politically sensitive programs from its regional version of the app store when it launched the iPhone in China in 2009. As she puts it, corporations “can in some ways challenge the sovereignties of nation-states in very exciting ways, but [they] sometimes also act to project and extend it.” If China wants to keep pursuing internet sovereignty, it may have an easier time working out backroom deals with the tech giants than lobbying the U.N.
OK, I think I get it. But can you tell me a little more about your lizard-people theories?
This article is part of the “Who Controls the Internet?” installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.