Yes, Obama has got some things wrong on the internet. But so has the GOP

Republicans need to think, not just oppose

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The critical IANA issue

Lastly, but most importantly, Cruz and Crovitz have got the issue of IANA transition completely wrong. It is not an immediately obvious policy decision - like raising taxes or putting networks under government control - but there are many that would be more than willing to explain it to the politicians and editorial boards.

Instead, we have lazy and wholly inaccurate rhetoric from Cruz of the transition being the same as "plans to give nations hostile to human rights and democracy more influence over Internet policy".

Crovitz chimes in claiming there has been "no progress finding an alternative for protecting the Internet from authoritarian governments", despite the fact that there are, as we speak, three plans for the three different aspects of the IANA contract out for public comment.

Crovitz highlights a paper produced by the Global Commission on Internet Governance and a Bill put forwarded by Congressman Mike Kelly, both arguing for greater control of IANA by its customers, the internet registries. But he worries that such a plan would leave out network engineers and civil society.

He's right to worry. But seems to willfully ignore the fact that the formal process for deciding the IANA transition is doing precisely what he is so concerned about and we now have a proposal to deal with those very concerns this week.

Why does Crovitz simply ignore this group? Because it doesn't square with the anti-Obama administration narrative. He writes:

"Obama administration officials apparently never considered how hard it would be to replace U.S. stewardship."

But they did. They walked through the exact same process as he did, only many months earlier, and devised a process that is trying to rectify just what he is complaining about.

In many respects, despite the rhetoric, the transition represents the opposite in terms of giving "authoritarian governments" more control over the internet. The plan to give control of this critical contract, around which the rest of the internet binds, to the so-called "multistakeholder model" is a move away from government control and into the hands of private business and the free market.

That is something that Cruz and Crovitz should instinctively be behind.

For years, other governments have used the US government's role at the heart of the internet as a way to justify all manner of restrictions and laws within their own territories. The reality is that the actual role that the US government plays in this largely technical matter is quite minimal and were it to disappear tomorrow, the likelihood is that no one would notice.

In the meantime, power, such as there is at that level, would be spread across a huge number of groups - almost all of which are dedicated to keeping the internet free and open. The most influential of these organisations are US corporations.

Reality check

The influence of nations such as China, Iran and Russia that Cruz and Crovitz are so concerned about would only happen within a body over which the United States government continues to hold significant sway due to its long history as the originator of the internet. And that body would have only an advisory capacity. It could not directly set policy, especially if the group of governments did not reach consensus - and that would be extremely unlikely to happen without the full and explicit support of the US government.

Crovitz then uses the recent "World Internet Conference" in China to highlight what he sees as dithering by the US government and "brazen" efforts by other governments to seize control.

"The rallying cry of the conference was 'Respect Internet sovereignty of all countries'," he writes, implying that China is distorting the conversation to its own ends.

But it was the Bush Administration in 2005 - when the IANA contract and the internet's functioning was under serious review by the United Nations - that first brought in the issue of sovereignty.

The second of the four "U.S. Principles on the Internet's Domain Name and Addressing System" reads:

"The United States recognizes that governments have legitimate public policy and sovereignty concerns with respect to the management of their ccTLD."

Crovitz argues that the US government should retain its role in IANA putting forward the oldest of arguments: "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it". But that of course assumes that the world and the internet haven't changed in past ten years - when they have to an enormous degree.

The internet was a bicycle when the IANA contract was first drawn up. That bicycle still works, it ain't broke. The problem is that everyone is now driving around in cars.

The other issue is that US government control over the IANA functions is contingent on the support of other nations accepting the situation. With the Snowden revelations of mass online surveillance by the NSA, those allies have all made it clear that the status quo is no longer acceptable. By pulling itself out of the situation, the US government is following a bigger goal of allowing the internet to prosper.

So who is driving the argument for retaining US government control? Ironically, it is the very big business lobbyists that Cruz says he is keen to keep in check.

Lobbyists know how to play the Washington game and their influence is powerful and pervasive. If IANA and the internet's governance is moved outside to a multistakeholder body, that influence will immediately diminish. And in its place the level of influence from ordinary internet users would jump. If that's not a vote winner, what is?

If Cruz is for less government regulation and more entrepreneurial freedom then he should be unequivocally in favour of the IANA contract transition rather than opposing it. And if Crovitz is genuinely worried about "internet freedom" he should stop ignoring what people on the ground are doing just because it doesn't fit into a partisan argument.

It's time for the Republicans to get serious about the internet. ®

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