Are you ready for Ted Cruz's Internet Apocalypse?
Ok, ok, I must confess the premises that the entire Internet would suddenly become a hostile environment is pretty tenuous at best. This article tries to address the silliness in the Protecting Internet Freedom Act sponsored by Senator Cruz. I have a full understanding of the technical solutions that could be applied, so I figured I'd do a write-up to ease a few troubled minds.
I think we would all like the Internet to be under US control as much as possible because our First Amendment is hard to beat. Some of that logically transfers into what the Internet means for the rest of the world, and even in those countries where the rights are not so great as ours. It is important to realize that for all purposes ICANN still remains a California-based non-profit corporation and is subject to our laws.
What is ICANN?
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers which controls all those lovely names you see the HTTP before, and all of the numbers that are associated with them. Really, the Internet works like a giant phonebook! When you go to a website (say this one) your computer asks another set of computers what the number is for seanmfoley.com, and then asks a server at that address for the web page you want to see. Your computer really only understands these numbers, and root servers associated with the Domain Name System (DNS) are responsible for making sure the list of names reach their destinations. ICANN is a non-profit corporation that was formed by the US government to provide these services to the public, and that is all it is able to do.
What Happens When The Contract Expires?
Nothing initially, ICANN will just run as a normal non-profit beholden to the people who run it. It will still do the same functions, but will not do them exclusively with the interaction of the US government nor have to abide by a contract. The US government is still part of the board that controls and observes ICANN and isn't losing its vote at the table. That is a major reason that I feel this is much ado about nothing. We are going from a semi-dictatorship on the domain names and moving toward a democratic model.
Specifically, from their site here:
"Does the transition threaten Internet freedom?
No. The United States Government's contract with ICANN does not give the U.S. any power to regulate or protect speech on the Internet. The IANA functions are technical – not content – based. The freedom of any person to express his or herself on the globally interoperable Internet is in fact enhanced by the transition moving forward. ICANN is not, has not been, and by its Bylaws cannot become, a place for regulation of content."
Who owns ICANN?
It's complicated, but the fact is that it has a worldwide constituency of stakeholders, private and governmental. Most nations of the world are involved directly or in an observational capacity. Think of it like the United Nations, without the troops, since it runs very much the same.
Are Fears Of Censorship Warranted?
It has already happened several times before with the US government taking down sites on various occasions -- hijacking the sites in question. They did this by forcing ICANN to redirect the website domain names to their own sites.
I think that most other countries, especially those who practice censorship, already have the packet sifting and filtering infrastructure they need to do the job. They're not going to go to ICANN to do this because they already have it, and getting ICANN in on it would cost more money. If someone already owns a piece of tech they're not going to pay for it twice. It just doesn't make any sense!
What can we do if/when the censorship occurs?
If we had a real situation where censorship occurred we could create new top level servers of our own and bypass ICANN. We could even pass traffic through to ICANN for domains we do not handle. It would just require a small handful of volunteers to provide a backbone and off and away we go. In the real world, there is already the OpenNIC project which does exactly what I've mentioned here. We would just need to upscale it slightly to meet the new demand, but it wouldn't be difficult at all.
We could also switch to Tor-based services and gain privacy, anonymization, and our own yet-to-be-developed mechanism to resolve simple names to Tor services. Personally, I'm more of a fan of something like this because the best way to maintain freedom is to hide your traffic in a mass of seemingly useless encrypted junk. You can't be censored when people cannot see what you're doing.
The Real Devil Of Censorship Is In Social Media Networks
Twitter and Facebook, in particular, are censoring more traffic than possibly any governmental agency outside of China. The real threat is here and no one in the mainstream media even mentions it. However, those of dissenting views are immediately aware of the struggle. We need to focus our efforts here and use platforms like Gab. The only way to make the message clear to the powers that be is to start patronizing the social media networks that stand up for our rights.
I hope you now understand the scope of the problem and see that it isn't as bad as Senator Cruz thinks. The charter that formed ICANN severely limits its role to a few basic functions, and that contradicts a lot of the statements Cruz has made on the issue.
We have several outs, but they could always blow our minds and put it on the floor tomorrow. I won't hold my breath.