ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
How much control should the U.S. have over the Internet? That's the central question on this week's All Tech Considered.
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SHAPIRO: On October 1, the U.S. government is scheduled to cede oversight powers that it's had for a long time, and some Republicans on Capitol Hill say it will create a power vacuum to be filled by China, Russia and Iran. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the battle centers on a rather obscure nonprofit.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: It's called The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN for short, and it traces back to a UCLA graduate student named Jon Postel. Postel started keeping track of the unique numbers assigned to a particular computer using the Internet. Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of internet law at Harvard, says Postel kept a clipboard to make sure no user had the same number, sort of like a phonebook.
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: It was just sort of an honor system that would stop Caltech from coming in or Bulgaria from saying, you know what? We're going to start using those numbers. It's just something that would be a way of coordinating as people came online and needed to use numbers and later names.
SYDELL: Today that function is done by ICANN, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles with over $130 million budget and more than 350 employees. It keeps track of millions of websites all over the globe. Since its founding in 1998, ICANN has been lightly monitored by the U.S. Commerce Department.
But the government contract for oversight is about to end, and the Obama administration plans to let ICANN become fully independent. Republican Senator Ted Cruz has waged a campaign against the transition that includes videos like this one in which he argues that it will permit authoritarian governments to control the Internet.
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TED CRUZ: Russia and China and Iran don't have a First Amendment. They don't protect free speech, and they actively censor the Internet. ICANN could do the same thing, putting foreign countries in charge of what you can say online, prohibiting speech that they disagree with.
SYDELL: Though ICANN oversees a fairly geeky administrative function, it does have an active advisory panel that includes representatives from governments all over the world. And there have been some dustups over the granting of new domain names.
Gay rights advocates have been trying to get approval for a .gay domain so that gay people all over the world can easily find resources. ICANN has been evaluating the requests for years, says Berin Szoka of the nonpartisan Tech Freedom. He says it's not clear what's really going on.
BERIN SZOKA: It's always going to be a little bit hazy. It's going to be hard to actually know who's really driving what. So here, for example, I guarantee you there are governments that have been exercising whatever influence they can to stop the creation of .gay.
SYDELL: Advocates for ICANN's independence say this is unlikely. They say there are a lot of safeguards in place to limit any government intrusion. The organization's board is made up of businesses and non-profit leaders. The rules make it hard for governments to have that much influence. And Harvard's Jonathan Zittrain says they already censor the Internet in much more effective ways.
ZITTRAIN: There are so many other paths that the Russians or the Chinese could take and have taken to make sure that their citizens or even people around the world can't see stuff they don't want them to see.
SYDELL: Zittrain says the U.S. government has been trying to fully privatize ICANN for years, going back to the Clinton administration, continuing with George W. Bush and now President Obama. He thinks Republicans are politicizing this to attack the president.
ZITTRAIN: It's a little strange to see people who have been vocal about getting the government out of content-based decisions insisting that the government remain in the position of wielding a veto over some aspect of the flow of bits online.
SYDELL: Right now a delay in privatizing ICANN in Congress seems possible. Cruz couldn't get it done in the Senate, but he's urging the House to take up the cause. And last week Donald Trump came out in support of the effort to stop the transition. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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