Should U.S. keep control of group that handles internet domain names?

During an often-contentious hearing Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took on the Obama administration for what has become his latest signature issue: internet oversight.

The Obama administration is due to relinquish U.S. control Oct. 1 over a private-sector, nonprofit organization that administers internet domain names and designations. Cruz warned that the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers will not on its own honor U.S. protections of free speech, and he is leading an effort to delay or stop the transfer.

“Under the guardianship of the United States and the First Amendment the internet has become truly an oasis of freedom, but that could soon change,” Cruz said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts, which he chairs.

“It is not a democratic body,” Cruz said of the organization, which includes such internet stakeholders as Google and Facebook and is based in Los Angeles. And he warned that authoritarian countries such as China, Russia and Iran could exert control over the organization and censor internet use in their countries.

The Obama administration maintains that the transfer involves technical matters that do not affect the substance of websites or the flow of information. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., the ranking member on the subcommittee, said the transition was really a “clerical process.” “The United States does not own the internet,” he said.

Cruz is poised to add an amendment to a temporary government funding bill to block the transfer – the same tactic he used in 2013 to stop funding the federal health care law, which led to a partial federal government shutdown. However, this time, Cruz has mainstream support from powerful Republicans.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, attended the subcommittee hearing and was supportive of putting off the transfer.

“A number of significant questions related to the transition remain unanswered, including whether the transition will yield an unconstitutional transfer of United States government property, how the transfer will affect human rights and free speech issues, if U.S.-controlled top-level domains such as .gov and .mil could be compromised or if ICANN will be subject to increased antitrust scrutiny,” he said.

Goran Marby, the internet corporation’s CEO and president, told the committee, “We are a nonpolitical technical entity.”

The official in charge of the transition, Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Strickling, who heads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, defended the transfer but at several points ended up in a shouting match with Cruz.

Strickling told Cruz that “the best and most effective way to preserve internet freedom is to depend on the community of stakeholders who own and operate, transact business and exchange information over the myriad of networks that comprise the internet.”

Cruz scoffed at placing trust in “stakeholders” and snapped at Strickling for interrupting him. Later in the hearing, Cruz suggested that Strickland and Commerce Department employees working on the internet issue could be violating a congressionally mandated prohibition on spending funds this fiscal year to make the transition.

When Strickling said that provision did not prevent the agency from preparing for the transition, Cruz said he thought that was a “tortured interpretation of the text.” Strickland responded angrily when Cruz suggested he may be risking criminal liability. “I am outraged that you are accusing us of doing that,” he said in the committee room.

After he finished his testimony, Strickland told reporters in the hallway that Cruz was misinterpreting the law.

“For whatever reason, Sen. Cruz doesn’t get it,” he said. As for the sharp exchanges with Cruz, he said, “that was theater.”

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