Four States Sue USA to Try to Stop Transfer of Internet Manager
By CAMERON LANGFORD
GALVESTON (CN) – With the U.S. government set to cede control at midnight Friday over the nonprofit that manages the internet, Texas and three other states sued, seeking to stop a move they claim will expose them to meddling from foreign governments hostile to free speech.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, manages domain names and assignment of internet service provider numbers under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce that’s set to expire Sept. 30.
The California-based nonprofit was formed in 1998 with help from the federal government.
Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn have warned that transfer of U.S. control of ICANN will give China, Russia and Iran, whose governments censor websites and online commentary critical of their policies, more control over the internet.
Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma and Nevada share the Republican senators’ fears. Their attorneys general sued the United States, the Department of Commerce and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Wednesday night in Galveston Federal Court.
Under a federal contract awarded in February 2000 and renewed four times, ICAAN and Verisign, of Virginia, administer domain names such as .com, .gov. and .org and Internet Service Provider numbers: digits that identify a home, company or device’s internet connection.
The telecommunications administration in March 2014 unveiled plans to “transition key internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community,” the lawsuit states, citing a news release from the agency.
“As the first step, NTIA is asking the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition the current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the internet’s domain name system,” the news release stated.
In June this year, the telecommunications administration announced that ICANN had submitted a proposal that “met its criteria for ‘complete privatization'” of the domain name management system, and that the United States would give up it stewardship when the contract expires on Sept. 30, according to the jargon-filled lawsuit that reads like it’s tailored to computer scientists.
Texas claims the move could be disastrous for its IT systems and those of all state government agencies in the United States.
“Not having government protection against the actions of ICANN is a particularized and significant injury,” the complaint states. “This is because the states have no assurance that ICANN will not delete the .gov top-level domain name or otherwise increase costs for the states. This lack of protection is an injury that will occur the moment NTIA relinquishes its contractual rights.”
Texas claims that without U.S. government oversight ICANN and Verisign will have “unbridled discretion” to change the “authoritative root zone file,” known as the internet’s “address book” or “master directory,” thereby imperiling its license to use the .gov domain.
“In doing so, the U.S. Government is handing over control of the ‘vast democratic forums of the Internet’ to private parties, and giving those parties free reign [to] employ prior restraints,” the states say.
“Alternatively, ICANN could simply shut down ‘.gov,’ preventing public access to state websites.”
The states say ICANN and Verisign could also chill free speech by excluding internet users from the root zone file and denying them access to a common domain name.
“A person wishing to speak on the internet could publish content, but that content would be near-impossible to find and the speaker would be virtually deprived of any audience that could hear the speech,” the complaint states.
The states seek a preliminary injunction, declaratory judgment that the U.S. government’s ceding control of ICANN violates the First Amendment and Property Clause of the Constitution, and the Administrative Procedure Act’s requirement that formal rule changes go through a public notice-and-comment process.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office did not immediately respond when asked Thursday why he chose to file the lawsuit in Galveston.
Just one federal judge presides in Galveston Federal Court, George Hanks, who was appointed by President Obama in January 2015. Hanks is the first African-American to preside over the court.
The ICANN board of directors is overseen by the Governmental Advisory Committee, which is composed of 111 countries, including China, Russia and Iran.
“Trusting authoritarian regimes to ensure the continued freedom of the internet is lunacy,” Paxton said in a statement. “The president does not have the authority to simply give away America’s pioneering role in ensuring that the internet remains a place where free expression can flourish.”
Other groups say the fears of a takeover by hostile foreign governments are unfounded.
New America is a Washington, D.C. think tank. Its fellow Danielle Kehl wrote in a New York Times column this week that the U.S. government’s ceding of power will actually bolster internet freedom by bringing businesses and civil society groups to the table.
“Completing the transition will actually prevent foreign governments from expanding their role in internet governance. This plan explicitly rejects any formal government role in ICANN,” she wrote.
“Moreover, ICANN’s multistakeholder model is an alternative to the intergovernmental solution that some foreign countries — especially Russia and China — have championed for years. They would prefer to see the domain name system managed by a multilateral organization in which governments are the only stakeholders who can meaningfully participate.”