Lawmakers in Washington are on the verge of threatening yet another government shutdown, and this time the standoff has been mounted over one of the dumbest of all possible policy fights: who gets to oversee domain names on the internet.
According to a new report from Bloomberg, a group of senate Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz is considering blowing up negotiations to fund the government unless the Obama administration ends a decades-long effort to change the way that international domain names are regulated and overseen.
Because the internet was first developed here in the United States (not by Al Gore; leave the poor man alone already), the U.S. government currently oversees domain name creation and registration through the U.S. Department of Commerce. That means that the U.S. government is tasked with regulating domain names for foreign websites created in other countries—the kind that end in .ca, .co., uk, .ze, etc.
If that seems absurd, that’s because it is absurd. For years, other countries have been irked by the fact that the U.S. regulates domain names for websites created outside the U.S. Over the past two decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, there has been a process underway to transition that authority to a non-governmental entity. Now, the Obama administration is poised to see that transition plan through by moving oversight of domain names to a private California-based non-profit known as Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Cruz’s primary concern has been that transferring authority away from the U.S. government will enable authoritarian governments like Russia or China to censor the internet. But many familiar with the issue have rebuffed that claim, arguing that domain name oversight is separate from regulating the content on websites.
On Wednesday, Sen. Cruz held hearings in the Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts to air his grievances. Several experts testifying before the committee countered that the Commerce Department’s current role is largely clerical and that the role that will be transferred will have nothing to do with the First Amendment or censorship.
Some human rights groups have also argued that the U.S. government’s monopoly on domain name oversight actually empowers authoritarian regimes. “The current U.S. government oversight … is largely symbolic but has given authoritarian regimes cover for demanding greater regulation of the internet through the UN and other international bodies,” wrote Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project at the pro-democracy group Freedom House. Other notable human rights and internet freedom organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Open Technology Institute also support the transition.
Senator Cruz’s position as the leader of this ill-fated crusade is odd given the fact that, as a presidential candidate, he ran on a platform of abolishing the Department of Commerce, the agency currently overseeing domain names. So one would imagine that the privatization of one of that dreaded agency's functions would be exactly the kind of policy the conservative senator would support.
But then what reason would Cruz have to shut down the government this year?