Don’t worry: Russia and China aren’t taking over the internet

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is the leading critic of relinquishing U.S. control over a nonprofit group that administers internet domain names and designations.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is the leading critic of relinquishing U.S. control over a nonprofit group that administers internet domain names and designations. TNS

The next time you click on a link to a cute kitty video on Facebook, you might find yourself looking at a photo of a shirtless Vladimir Putin instead. And you’ll have President Barack Obama to thank for it.

Or so U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz would have everyone believe.

The ever-voluble Republican from Texas has been warning anyone who will listen that evil lurks behind a rather mundane recent change in oversight of internet domain names. The move, Cruz says, “will empower countries like Russia, like China, like Iran to be able to censor speech on the internet, your speech.”

Here’s the conspiracy theory, in a nutshell:

Since 1998, an obscure organization called the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — ICANN, for short — has maintained a phone book of sorts that keeps track of dot-coms and the like. This ensures that new addresses meet basic standards and aren’t duplicated. It was run by a nonprofit in California under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Now, those clerical duties have been taken over by a new ICANN administered by a large international group that includes technical experts, businesses and governments. The transfer of responsibilities — an acknowledgment that the internet is a global enterprise and should be handled by a global organization — started in the Clinton administration, with planning that continued through the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

If the United States were to back out now, it would send a terrible message to an international community that already has some justifiable skepticism about how far to trust America with digital information.

Cruz portrays the change as the sure demise of the internet, although he’s a bit vague on how.

“America built the internet, and we shouldn’t be giving it away to our enemies,” he says.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has chimed in, too, with his national policy director Stephen Miller declaring, “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.

In the days before the changeover, ICANN offered a decidedly different take, issuing a statement, explaining that the list it maintains “does not operate the internet, or have any role in content on the internet.”

Other experts are likewise underwhelmed by Cruz’s warnings. Jim Waldo, a professor and chief technology officer for Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says, “These worries are more evidence that the people voicing them don’t understand how the technology works.”

Tellingly, free speech and human rights groups say they have no objection to the change, and officials from major internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter sent a letter to Congress saying it’s imperative that the change proceed.

“A global, interoperable and stable internet is essential for our economic and national security, and we remain committed to completing the nearly 20-year transition to the multistakeholder model that will best serve U.S. interests,” the letter stated.

Supporters say that, contrary to Cruz’s claims, the transfer of ICANN under its new structure will actually help protect internet freedoms.

Repressive regimes, on the other hand, pushed for United Nations intervention in the oversight of the internet, a move that free-speech advocates and businesses contend would give too much control to governments.

The internet faces real threats, notably from hackers in Russia, China and Iran. But Cruz’s crusade against ICANN is a pointless distraction, and Congress would be far wiser to listen to more-knowledgeable, dispassionate voices.