The transition of the internet's critical technical functions from the US government to non-profit organization ICANN, planned for next week, remains under threat thanks to an ongoing crusade by Senator Ted Cruz.
In much the same way that Donald Trump has exploited weaknesses in the political system to become the Republican presidential nominee, Senator Cruz (R-TX) is relying on partisan politics, a firm deadline, and wildly inaccurate but eye-catching claims to boost the issue – and his political profile.
Following another busy day of negotiations in Congress to fund the US government past October 1, the Senate finally voted to end debate over a temporary funding bill after politicians reached agreement on a number of different issues, most significant of which was funding to tackle the Zika virus. Just yesterday, Cruz's campaign looked dead in the water.
But the ability to pass a "continuing resolution" is being held up by a number of smaller issues, most persistent of which is Cruz's insistence that the IANA transition represents a threat to free speech online and a handing over of power to foreign governments.
Despite a wave of US officials, tech companies, and internet governance experts debunking Cruz's claims – including at his own Senate hearing – the senator from Texas continues to push his alarming vision.
The Trump effect
His persistence on the issue has even sparked fact-checkers to check on his claims – the most recent of which saw The Washington Post give him three Pinocchio noses, denoting "significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions." It even noted it came close to giving the maximum of four, which would indicate an outright lie. Politifact, in checking Cruz's claims, said, "Really?"
But as with Donald Trump, the exposure of intentional falsehoods is not having the expected impact in the heat of an election season. By brazenly continuing on as if facts are mere opinion, Cruz is simply creating more notoriety for himself and stirring up partisan resentment.
Cruz had been sidelined from current budget negotiations following his disastrous role in shutting down the government in 2013 over Obamacare. But by focusing in on the IANA transition – which has that rare thing in Washington: an immoveable deadline – he is causing problems for negotiators.
On Tuesday, minority leader Harry Reid specifically called out Cruz's efforts. "It's not time for a big debate about how we change the internet forever," he told reporters. "It's not a time to try to satisfy Cruz, because he doesn't get along with the caucus and they're trying to shut him up."
Unfortunately the highly dysfunctional nature of Congress means that anything that makes the other side unhappy is seen as a good thing, even if it goes against the country's broader interests.
In response to Reid's condemnation of Cruz, House and Senate Republicans insisted that his demands were part of ongoing discussions. Senator John Thune, who has often raised uncertainty over IANA, but particularly over ICANN, implied that he would push the issue to the very end.
Behind the scenes, particularly with a slew of articles undermining Cruz's claims, Republican supporters of Cruz are being sold not on the threat of Russia taking over the internet, but on the possibility of giving the Obama Administration a bloody nose on the eve of elections. It is thought to be unlikely that President Obama would allow a government shutdown over the IANA issue, when the current contract could be renewed for a year with relative ease.
Please make him go away
More responsible Republicans are looking to simply shut up Cruz's constant lobbying and put an end to the constituent pressure he is engendering by pushing on the touchpoints of the First Amendment and national pride ("America created the internet, America should maintain control," reads a typical voter message). The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as they say, although in this case that wheel is a candidate whose sole goal is to increase his chances in a 2020 presidential election.
For every article published online – and they are all online – debunking Cruz's wild claims, another pops up making yet more crazy accusations. The most recent from a former White House CIO bizarrely argued that the IANA transition could jeopardize the election itself by linking ICANN's role to protecting the internet from hijacked websites.
In a sign of just how out of control the situation has become, the chairman of ICANN and of its security and stability committee felt obliged to pen a quick response explaining why the article was so wildly inaccurate.
There is, of course, a certain irony that it is the internet itself that is making such a campaign of misinformation not only possible, but genuinely effective.
If the IANA transition does go through, ICANN will be in a position to remove such inaccurate posts from the internet and so bring back some normalcy to political discussion. Will it really? No, of course not, but hey, why not just make things up if we think it will further our goals? ®