David Redl’s road to becoming the National Telecommunications and Information Administrator (NTIA) was long and bumpy. Documents disclosed in late January suggest that, in order to move his nomination forward, Redl promised Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that he would assemble a “panel of experts to investigate options for unwinding” the 2016 Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) transition. Sen. Cruz had held up Redl’s nomination for months because he was displeased with Redl’s answers regarding the transfer of IANA stewardship from the NTIA to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit, multi-stakeholder, internet governance organization.
That transition was the right move at the time and remains so today. Any experts worth their salt would tell Redl that attempting to reverse the transition is as futile as it is unwise. Even if the transition could be undone, doing so would not be in the in the interests of the U.S.
The IANA functions refer to the ability to coordinate globally-unique top-level domain names (.com, .org, .edu), internet protocol addresses and protocol port numbers. Control of IANA is not synonymous with control of the internet as a whole. Though a poorly-run or politically-manipulated IANA could cause the internet a lot of trouble, the IANA functions are primarily a matter of technical coordination. These facts, however, have not stopped Sen. Cruz and others from referring to the transition of IANA stewardship to a private organization as an “internet giveaway” to countries like Russia and China and trying to discredit the process. Now, with the transition already completed, Redl’s promise to Sen. Cruz is the latest attempt to turn back the clock.
Litigation attempting to halt the transition was resolved more than a year ago. In 2016, four states sued the NTIA, saying they would be harmed if the transition proceeded as planned. The court dismissed the case and held that “statements of what ‘might’ or ‘could’ happen are insufficient to support the extraordinary relief sought in this case.” It further noted that the states’ claims of ICANN’s past bad behavior “happened under the exact regulatory and oversight scheme that the [s]tates now seek to preserve.” In other words, reversing the transition would not have addressed the states’ concerns.
ICANN is an imperfect organization with politics and problems of its own. But the transition led to dramatic improvements in ICANN’s accountability and corporate governance. The relevant alternatives at this point are leaving IANA stewardship in the hands of ICANN or, if legally possible, transferring it back to the U.S. government. There are no perfect solutions here, only tradeoffs. Accepting stewardship by ICANN is still preferable to reverting to the NTIA, which would bring injurious consequences for global internet freedom. For those who value global internet freedom, the former is the only option.
The internet protocols are used globally, rendering internet governance a matter of global concern. A free and open internet run by the private sector and relatively free of geopolitics was the reason for delegating authority over IANA to ICANN in the first place.
As global commerce and civil society become increasingly reliant on the internet, committing to private governance, rather than government or intergovernmental control, is more critical than ever. If the U.S. wants to be a legitimate force in combating authoritarian regimes who seek greater control over the internet, it must hold fast to its principle of multi-stakeholder governance by non-state actors, and it must be able to keep moderate countries from abandoning the ICANN regime and embracing governmental control. Reversing the IANA transition would tell the world that we want governments to be in charge of the internet—and China and Russia would not hesitate to assert their respective claims.
The issue here is as much about rhetoric as it is about substance. The IANA functions themselves do not directly impinge on whether authoritarian governments gain more influence over the internet, but how the United States reacts to the transition will nudge diplomatic debates one way or another. If the U.S. government is seen to be grasping at more control over the internet, countries that would otherwise be on the fence might support a greater role for intergovernmental bodies in internet governance.
On the other hand, going through with the transition has improved the United States’ negotiating position. By committing to private governance of the internet, it has been and will be able to augment its credibility in arguing against more government control. Attempting to reverse the transition would undermine whatever influence the U.S. has gained since it took place.
This problem is now especially acute because of this November’s Plenipotentiary Conference of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, a body that has notoriously sought to establish intergovernmental control over the internet in the past. Authoritarian governments want nothing more than to paint the U.S. as a hypocrite that touts internet freedom while secretly grabbing the controls. How far they seek to go at this year’s conference will partly depend on how far the U.S. goes in attempting to reverse the IANA transition and how many moderate-country votes they can swing to their side.
Of course, it might be that Redl’s promised “panel of experts” was a political ploy. It may never materialize or, if it does, it may return a verdict consistent with his original answer at the confirmation hearing, that “it’s very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.” Either way, both Redl and Cruz should look ahead to address real internet governance threats from authoritarian governments, like an expanded role for the ITU and ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee, rather than trying to undo the privatization of the IANA functions.
We have been living in a post-transition world for over a year now, and nightmare scenarios of Russia and China somehow being empowered by this change have yet to materialize. Trying to undo the transition only makes these harmful outcomes more likely.