The US government isn't serious about its own suggestion to take back control of the internet, a Congressional hearing revealed on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) surprised many when it asked, bluntly – "Should the IANA Stewardship Transition be unwound? If yes, why and how? If not, why not?" – as part of a formal notice of inquiry.
That transition – two years ago – comprised the hand over of control of the internet's most critical high-level functions to the private sector and represented the end of US government oversight of the global network. Any plan to pull it back would be met with international fury.
But at a hearing in front of the Senate's science and commerce committee on Wednesday, it became clear that the question was included simply to appease a single senator: Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Asked early on in the hearing about the IANA transition and whether it was "complete and irreversible", head of the NTIA David Redl was unequivocal. "Yes, that is my personal view," before adding, "but we've put that question out there: if you do want to unwind it, how do we do so?"
The issue was then dropped while others took on topics like the claimed "race" for 5G – which many senators appear convinced actually exists.
Until that is, Senator Cruz popped up. "One of the issues I have raised significant concerns over for some time is the Obama Administration decision to end its protection of core functions of the internet," he noted, before repeatedly misidentifying the IANA transition as the "INA transition."
Ted talk. And talk. And talk
"My view," Cruz went on, before asking a question, "is that the INA transition was a grossly irresponsible decision that presents a real threat to First Amendment rights and reduced the United States' ability to offer protection to the core functions of the internet."
He then asked Redl what steps he had taken to review the transition and what additional steps he planned after the notice of inquiry's (NOI) comment period was finished.
Redl explained directly to Cruz that the NTIA has "spent a lot of time doing outreach" on the issue in order to come up with "steps to address your concerns."
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"And we decided the best way to do that was to make it part of an NOI and ask the question directly: please let us know, and if yes, please let us know how to do it. And if no, why we shouldn't."
The NTIA, he said, was a "big fan of process" and the question in the NOI would give it "the airing it deserved."
Or, in other words, the best way to get Cruz off their back was to be as public as possible. Cruz had held up Redl's appointment of NTIA head over the issue.
That response prompted Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to ask: "Is it even possible?" Redl responded again that in his personal view, no it was not. But, he went on, "that's why we have asked the question."
Redl also revealed that the NTIA was originally considering getting a "panel of experts" to address the question of the IANA transition but decided "during outreach" that "a more public process made sense."
Or, in other words, everyone told the NTIA that the only way to shut Cruz up was to do it as openly as possible and rely on everyone saying "No, it's fine, now please let's not talk any more about it."
The peculiarly blunt question was therefore designed to provide crystal clear responses. In response to Senator Cruz, the US commerce department has trolled him back.
Assuming, of course, that Cruz doesn't decide to make a huge issue of the question and attempt to send hordes of people to the public comment period to insist that America take back what is rightfully its.
Not much else came out of the hearing, except the depressingly hypocritical approach that continues to be taken over broadband provision and rollout.
Redl was asked about the broadband map touted by the FCC and in particular what the NTIA was going to do to make sure it was accurate in future.
Redl diplomatically refused to say the FCC map was junk – although that didn't stop a number of senators from saying as much – but he did point out one pretty important fact: the NTIA had asked Congress for $50m in order to ensure that map was accurate and so could be used to inform future policy decisions.
And in response, Congress gave the NTIA just $7.5m. Redl explained that the massive reduction in available funds meant that the government department had to take a number of things "off the table" – including buying accurate commercial data and paying people to independently validate the FCC data.
Or, in other words, Congress failed to put its money where its mouth is, yet again. ®