Analysis US Congressmen have called on America's broadband regulator to figure out how to shut down websites and social media accounts used by the Islamic State.
At an oversight hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at which all five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were present, Joe Barton (R-TX) announced that he was "gonna go off script – but in a positive way."
Moving away from the usual FCC topics of spectrum auctions and broadband rollout, Barton decided that it was time to tackle global terrorism.
"We just had this terrible attacks in Paris. We need to do something about it," he told the subcommittee on communications and technology. "ISIS and the terrorist networks can't beat us militarily but they are really trying to use the internet and the social media to intimidate and beat us psychologically. Isn't there something we can do under existing law to shut those internet sites down?"
What Barton was likely responding to was President Obama's repeated references earlier this week to the sophisticated use of social media by the Islamic State to spread its message and persuade people from western countries to travel to Syria and similar places to receive training before returning to their homelands.
Barton did appear to have some understanding of how the internet functions when he told the FCC Commissioners: "I know they [websites and social media accounts] pop up like weeds – but once they do pop up, [can we] shut them down and then turn over those internet addresses to the appropriate authorities and try to track them down?"
Barton's call to "make it much more difficult and hopefully absolutely shut it down" was subsequently supported by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Congressman Mike Doyle (D-PA). And all three voiced support of the idea of bringing in new legislation that would make it easier for the federal regulator to disrupt use of the internet by the Middle Eastern group. Or, as Barton put it, to "shut things down."
Fortunately, FCC chair Tom Wheeler knows enough about the internet to realize this line of thinking is going nowhere useful and used the question as an opportunity to push a slightly related FCC topic of updating its old and largely worthless Network Outage Reporting System (NORS) to get internet cable companies to send information about any outages they suffer. Barton wasn't interested in that so again pushed to be told how the legislators could write some laws to shut down the parts of the internet that Islamic State used.
Why isn't it possible?
While Barton's suggestion shows a fundamental lack of understanding over how the internet works, it is not on a par with the famous "series of tubes" misunderstanding from "Techno" Ted Stevens back in 2006.
Nevertheless it is worth walking through why this idea of producing new laws to shut down websites and social media accounts is a non-starter – particularly when elected officials with the power to make such laws seem convinced that it is possible.
First up: websites.
Websites can be broken down into three basic types when it comes to the goal of removing material from groups such as Islamic State: under nominal US control; outside nominal US control; and forums.
Every website runs on a domain name (Web address) and every domain is under a "top level domain," or TLD, like .com or .org. Each TLD is run by an individual company called a registry. Domains under that top-level domain are almost always registered by a separate group of companies called registrars.
As things stand, there are roughly 1,000 top-level domains that operate under rules created by a non-profit organization based in California called ICANN. And there are roughly 250 other top-level domains that represent individual countries – like .uk for the United Kingdom or .fr for France – and they run according to rules created in each individual country.
The first group of TLDs are referred to as "generic top level domains" or gTLDs and the second group are called country-code top-level domains, or ccTLDs.
All of these top-level domains rely on something called the IANA functions which, among other things, maintain a directory of this entire list of TLDs and points to the servers where another directory of all of the domain names/websites under that TLD can be found. The IANA functions are currently also operated by ICANN under a contract awarded by the US government's Department of Commerce.
So, here is where it is possible, theoretically, for the US government or a federal regulator to intervene when it comes to domain names/websites.