A historic transfer of internet power is scheduled to occur at midnight Saturday.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers became an autonomous non-profit after a contract with the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration expired.
Now ICANN will perform the duties of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority without direct oversight of the US government.
Instead, ICANN is now accountable to international stakeholders that includes a governmental advisory committee, a technical committee, an industry committee, internet users and other telecommunications experts.
The organization, based out of Los Angeles, coordinates the Domain Name System that matches internet addresses with their actual numerical computer addresses. IANA functions include maintaining the registry of IP addresses and the allocation of internet numbering resources.
The entire ordeal sounds extremely complicated — and it did not come without its fair share of controversy.
That contract, which is now officially expired, had been in place since 1998. Both businesses and members of the international community had been pressuring the US to cede control over IANA functions, deemed by some as a very minor ordeal — likening it to printing the phone book. But others, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, likened it to "giving away the internet."
Cruz originally wanted a provision in the recent stopgap spending bill in Congress to prevent this transfer from occurring, but that did not happen. Late this week, the attorney generals of four states filed a lawsuit in federal court looking to block the midnight Saturday transfer, but it was thrown out by a federal judge in the Southern District of Texas on Friday.
"This transition was envisioned 18 years ago, yet it was the tireless work of the global internet community, which drafted the final proposal, that made this a reality,” ICANN Board Chair Stephen D. Crocker said in a statement. "This community validated the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance."
Speaking to Business Insider Friday, before the Texas judge's decision, aides to Cruz called the issue — which amounts to control over the internet address book — a ground zero of protecting free speech online. They also criticized the White House for claiming that, in his fight against the transfer, Cruz didn't understand how the internet works and wanted to keep government involved in the process.
"I love it when big government liberals try and lecture conservatives about limited government," an aide said.
Chief among Cruz's concerns is that a government advisory council is part of ICANN. He believes that the foreign governments who have a voice in that part of the group will begin to have a much bigger sway in how it operates going forward. His aides likened it to a form of the United Nations, where each country involved will be on equal footing.
The problem with that, Cruz believes, is that countries such as Russia and China, both of which maintain strict internet control in their own countries, will be able to exert it on a global stage, possibly even impacting internet freedom within the US.
But Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told Business Insider in a Friday interview that the way the Texas Republican is characterizing the issue "is exactly wrong."
"This is not a handover of control of the internet to some UN body, as much as he tries to make it sound like ICANN, which is an American corporation registered in California, is some international body," the Delaware Democrat said. "It isn't the UN or anything like it."
"The way that China or Russia could have greater influence over the naming function of the internet is if we delay this transition," he continued. "Lose our credibility internationally that we do intend to privatize this function, and give them the leverage to make stronger arguments at the United Nations that the UN ... should begin preparing to set up their own DNS function. I think there is a very small risk that this transition will lead to any increased role for any country, including those that censor the internet in their own country."
Cruz's team insisted that, although ICANN has not censored content in the past as a part of their duties, the senator believes they could have that ability moving forward. The group performs only a clerical function, but Cruz believes that could change.
Using the example of "Free Tibet" group's in China, which have their web content blocked within that country while it can still be viewed elsewhere, a Cruz aide said China could begin to dictate whether that content makes it outside of the country.
Coons used the phone book analogy to try and disprove what Cruz has argued. He said that, when he was a kid, the Yellow Pages and White Pages essentially had a monopoly. But by the 1990s, dozens of publishers printed competing phone books.
"The fact that there is a company that publishes the Yellow Pages that says if you want to purchase from a hardware store in your city, you know, here they all are, here are all of their names, that doesn't restrict what you can say on the phone to the hardware store," he said in his analogy. "It has nothing to do with the content of your conversations with the hardware store. All it does is assign pages to certain names and numbers. That's pretty similar to what the IANA does."
"The IANA maintains the directory for when a string of numbers comes through your computer, it translates it into a bunch of numbers and then connects you to the right computer," he continued. "One of the things that was clearly alluding the critics of this transition, was the idea that there could ever be a second Yellow Pages or a third Yellow Pages. Right now, the internet, which is a network of networks, is not owned or controlled by anyone. That's why it's the internet."
Coons called the government-controlled contract which just expired a deal for "one version of the phone book."
"And for 20 years, they've said 'America, at some point, will you turn over this minor role you have in this organization that is printing the Yellow Pages," he said. "And we said in both Democratic and Republican administrations, 'Sure, we'll get around to it. Sure, we're about to do that.'"
He said that, with many in the international community growing leery that the US would ever end up actually doing it, there was increasing support for a "competing phone book" run by a sub-unit of the United Nations. That sounds a lot like exactly what Cruz does not want.
"And the entity that would resolve disputes between who owns which domain or which website will be resolved by this UN agency," Coons said. "That is a structure where countries like China and Iran and Russia would have a bigger role. Instead, we have focused on the last four years pretty aggressively, and in the last two in a heightened way, on privatizing a very minimal US government role in overseeing how this phone book contract is administered."
"Here's the true irony: Sen. Cruz is a tireless advocate for personal liberty and an opponent of federal government control in just about every subject matter area except this one," the senator continued. "What he's opposing is privatization. By opposing it, he's actually putting at risk the possibility that it will instead be taken over by a competing effort led by countries that do not favor free speech in the UN. Does that make any sense?"
The Delaware senator said the transfer should make "no real difference" for everyday Americans, as there should be no perceivable change in how the internet works, explaining that it has to do with the "wires, plumbing, and piping" of the internet, not its content.
Coons asked why tech giants would be in favor of the transfer if it posed a legitimate threat to internet freedom.
"Why would companies like Dell and Cisco and Microsoft and Intel — who rely on a robust an open global internet for their businesses — why would they be so invested and concerned about this?" he said. "Because they need predictability."
"Because ICANN, this large company in California that is largely run by the internet community, which is largely run by American companies, why would they want that group in control of this internet naming function rather than the UN," he continued. "I think you just got the answer."
At the UN, countries such as Russia or Iran would have that equal footing to the US, while ICANN, because it is based out of California, is still subject to California law he said. And, it will be mostly under the purview of the private sector, which has a business interest in the internet being open and free.
"If I got to choose between having the phone book published by the UN or by an American non-profit company that is headquartered in California and subject to California law, I know which one I want," he said. "I want the latter."
The senator called the reason Cruz wanted to stop the transfer a "fringe conspiracy theory," adding that many such theories have gained plenty of traction during the 2016 campaign season.
"One of the things that has made this campaign season particularly interesting is the number of fringe conspiracy theories that have somehow made their way into the mainstream," he said. "This issue is no exception to that unfortunate trend."
On Friday, after aligning himself with Cruz's position on the issue, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump ripped the "disastrous" IANA transfer during a rally.
"Hillary Clinton is merely a vessel for the special interested trying to strip this country of its wealth, its jobs, and its status as a sovereign nation," he said. "She even supports the disastrous surrender of America's control of the internet — let it be given to the world. What a bunch of people we have representing us. What a bunch of people."
Coons said Trump's statement shows, "unfortunately," that Trump "is not well informed on internet governance matters."
"This particular issue was seized upon by a few in order to score some points, by misleadingly suggesting that President [Barack] Obama is giving away the internet," the senator said. "The United States does not own a set of keys to the internet. It's not a physical thing. It's not as if we're taking our dad's Oldsmobile and giving it away at a flea market. It is a network of networks. And that is a hard thing to grasp and an easy thing to mislead people about."