Hearing gets feisty: threats of jail time, questions about China and more.
Ted Cruz is on a mission to halt the U.S. government from relinquishing contracts with ICANN related to IANA functions. That transition is due to take place at the end of this month.
Yesterday he brought the battle to a congressional hearing.
The hearing had two parts. The first featured Göran Marby, CEO of ICANN CEO, and Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the Department of Commerce. I only watched this first part, as the second seemed like a waste of time. Among the witnesses in the second part was Karsten, there to complain about how new top level domains were allocated.
Cruz pitched this as a choice between preserving the first amendment on the internet or handing it over to authoritarian regimes like China, Russia and Iran.
Marby and Strickling repeatedly disputed this characterization, pointing out that ICANN has no role in content and that the transition is set up so that the U.S. can easily block any movement brought forth by China, Russia or Iran.
Instead, Marby and Strickling argued that refusing to let the U.S. government contract expire would provide momentum for other governments to create a UN-like competitor to ICANN.
Here are some of my takeaways from the hearing:
- Ted Cruz is a gifted orator and a great debater. He frequently tried to pull the witnesses in to arguments by getting them to agree to one thing and then arguing this necessarily means something else. He tried to get Marby to agree that China is an enemy of the internet, but Marby wouldn’t fall into that trap. He also tried to get Strickling to pass judgment on whether big internet companies protect the first amendment.
- The optics of former CEO Fadi Chehade and his current involvement with China gave Cruz lots to work with. Unfortunately for Marby, he was stuck in a position of being asked to explain what Chehade meant when he said certain things.
- Cruz was obviously prepared for the hearing, but so was Senator Chris Coons. Coons bailed out the witnesses a couple of times with better examples or explanations. When Cruz threatened Strickling and his employees at the NTIA with two years in jail for working on the IANA transition, Coons gave a great comparison to constructing a building. He explained that Congress said the NTIA couldn’t spend money relinquishing control. But that doesn’t mean the NTIA shouldn’t continue to evaluate it. If you were told not to construct a building until given approval, does that mean you shouldn’t evaluate the potential for the building?
- Other senators were not prepared, as is common in these hearings. Senator Chuck Grassley appeared to have not even read his questions before asking them. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake dropped in to name drop for his constituent Karsten, saying he wouldn’t be there when Karsten was due to testify. He proceeded to ask the witnesses about new top level domains. Sigh…
- This was a big test for Marby, who has only been CEO of ICANN for a few months. He did fairly well, but it certainly hurt not having a witness in the ICANN chair that had been around for a few years. Strickling answered for him on the question about new top level domains, even though this was a question that should have been answered by ICANN’s representative.
So where does this leave us? Cruz wants to put a rider halting the transition in the next continuing resolution that keeps the government operating. He has been known to take things to the edge, threatening to shut down the government if it doesn’t make a particular provision in its continuing resolutions.
Is this one big enough for Cruz to threaten another government shutdown? Hopefully, this will come down to a question of facts.
Threatening to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding is an ideological stance. But the transition of the IANA functions isn’t really ideological, at least how Cruz is positioning it. His claims that it will harm free speech or give China control of the internet are simply false.
Indeed, the risks of this happening are bigger if the transition is delayed.