The US government's plan to hand over control of critical internet functions at the end of the month is heading for an extraordinary showdown next week, as Congress debates whether to block it.
The current IANA contract is due to expire on September 30, at which point the organization that has run the contract for the past 20 years, ICANN, will take it over.
But some in Congress, most notably Ted Cruz, are opposed to the transition, claiming that it will effectively give countries like China, Russia and Iran greater say over the internet's functioning. Cruz is making a last-ditch effort to halt the deal, and has so far succeeded in bringing along a number of other skeptical Republicans.
Cruz took to the Senate floor on Thursday to decry the plan. "Today our country faces a threat to the internet as we know it," he argued.
"In twenty-two short days, if Congress fails to act, the Obama administration intends to give away the internet to an international body akin to the United Nations."
It's a claim that is objectively untrue but which has played well with other Republicans.
The move would also cause "significant, irreparable damage" to global free speech, claims Cruz, who last week put out a countdown clock to the transition on his website. Cruz reportedly intends to use his position as chair of a Senate subcommittee to schedule a hearing on the "possible dangers" of the move.
Cruz alone has little or no chance of blocking the deal. He is not only wildly unpopular in Congress, but his grandstanding on this and other issues is rarely taken seriously inside the corridors of power. However he is not alone.
Senator John Thune has also been a frequent critic of the transition and of the organization due to take the reins, ICANN. As chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Thune is in a position to put up an effective roadblock. Twice in the past, his committee has played a key role in placing riders on financial bills that prevent the US Department of Commerce (DoC) from using any funds to support the IANA transition.
The latest constraint is due to end at one minute to midnight on September 30, leaving the way clear for the DoC to approve the transition one second later.
However, Thune gave an interview to Politico on Thursday in which he suggested he might do the same again, with wording specifically aimed at halting the transition. "I don't think the foundation has been appropriately laid for this," he told the publication. "Some members are adamantly opposed to transition, period, and a lot of them just think now is not the time, and it really just hasn't been vetted, and it's not ready yet."
There have been a number of other Congressmen in both the Senate and the House who have raised similar concerns. The Russia/China/Iran argument has been repeatedly rebutted by both experts and reporters, but persists because of its simplistic appeal. Whereas the significant failings of ICANN have not been properly addressed (and in fact grow ever more visible), but do not make for strong rhetoric, since every Congressperson recognizes that (s)he also exists within a flawed and corruptible governance system.
In the clearest sign that an effort to block the transition may actually succeed, the DoC has both sent a letter to ICANN warning it that it may need to extend its current contract, and has held briefings in Washington, DC, to counteract the behind-the-scenes efforts by Cruz and others to block the deal.
An attendee at one of those briefings this week informed us that senior government officials urged them to publicly support the transition, arguing that if the transition was blocked it would cause the international community to question whether the US government would ever take its hands off the internet's tiller. That could have dangerous knock-on effects for the global interoperability of the internet that we currently all take for granted.
In reality, the US government has to decide by September 15 whether it is going to extend the IANA contract by a year. Under the terms of the contract, it is obliged to give ICANN 15 days' notice of an extension. That means Congress has one week to block the move.
Of course, it could get more complicated than that: Congress could vote to block the transition after that September 15 cut-off. It's not clear what would happen at that point, although in all likelihood, the US government would simply extend the contract as ICANN would have a very hard time arguing greater authority than Congress.
Likewise, the DoC could find some legal wiggle room in whatever Congress passes and effectively ignore it.
There is no way that specific legislation blocking the transition would make it through Congress to the President's desk, and all the other measures – such as limiting funds or questioning whether the IANA contract is an asset and so cannot be handed over without Congressional approval – are not exactly watertight.
However, the DoC is unlikely to want to be seen as thwarting the will of Congress, especially in the closing days of a presidency, and so would probably decide it's not worth the upset and would simply extend the contract.