The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is a corporation that manages one of the critical, centralized pieces of the internet's underlying infrastructure, the domain name system's root.
Historically, ICANN has been under US government authority, but under a longstanding agreement it is due to be turned over to an international consortium for management on Oct 1, something that has incensed Ted Cruz, who has railed against non-US management in domain names because this could enable censorship (something that Cruz is apparently against, some of the time).
But as World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and MIT Professor (and former White House CTO) Daniel Weitzner explain to Senator Cruz in an op-ed, that's not really how internet censorship works. Mostly, net censorship is accomplished with national firewalls (and, I might add, massive armies of trolls for hire and other astroturfers, as well as copyright abuse), and the domain system plays little role in censorship.
The authors argue that keeping ICANN as a US affair won't prevent mass censorship, but it will build the case for moving the net away from the custodianship of multi-stakeholder, technologist-centered groups to a Balkanized state-by-state approach.
They also tell Cruz that he's wrong about who made the net: it wasn't (just) Americans; Berners-Lee is a Briton who was working in Switzerland when he invented the web.
Repressive governments expend a great deal of energy censoring speech online — but they do so entirely without ICANN. Those governments oppress their people the old-fashioned way, by disregarding human rights and undermining the rule of law.
Let's consider the most egregious threats to free speech and human rights online. Egypt shuts down nearly all Internet traffic during the Arab Spring to disrupt citizen's right to oppose the government. Pakistan blocks access to entire platforms such as YouTube because they host a few offending videos, with the result that a huge amount of speech is suppressed.
ICANN had no role in these shutdowns nor could it prevent them. Countries such as China and Iran operate large-scale firewalls controlling nearly all of the Internet's content within their countries and restricting what information can cross the border. ICANN cannot shut down these firewalls. And Russia routinely mounts attacks on web sites of opposition groups inside and outside the country, leading to suppression of democratic discourse. ICANN has no role in preventing this kind of hacking.
Ted Cruz is wrong about how free speech is censored on the Internet
[Tim Berners-Lee and Daniel Weitzner/Washington Post]