WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz might be laying low politically, but this fall he's taking the lead on an obscure issue that could affect ongoing federal budget negotiations: Who should control how the Internet is organized?
Cruz is fighting an impending move by the federal government to relinquish oversight of a nonprofit organization that determines the way domain names are organized on the Internet.
It’s an issue on the minds of many conservatives, who charge that giving up that power would allow authoritarian regimes like China and Russia to further censor free speech on the Web.
"Once the government's out of the picture, First Amendment protections go away," Cruz said Wednesday morning at a Senate hearing he chaired.
"Why risk it? The Internet works. It's not broken," he later added. "What is the problem that is trying to be solved here?"
But those advocating for the move toward privatization, a group that includes the Obama administration and a number of technology companies, say that the U.S. ceded de facto control of the Internet decades ago and that such concern is overstated.
In 2014, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. government would cede oversight of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based nonprofit charged with how Web addresses and domain names (including ".gov," ".com" and ".edu") are organized on the Internet.
The federal government anticipates letting its contract overseeing ICANN to expire on Sept. 30, allowing ICANN to operate independently.
Cruz addressed the matter in a hearing in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts Subcommittee.
Cruz and other conservatives say the changes would be cataclysmic for the free exchange of ideas because a private entity like ICANN is not bound by the First Amendment. He has filed legislation that would block the federal government from relinquishing its oversight.
Cruz essentially argued Wednesday that it was a zero sum game: A decrease in U.S. power overseeing ICANN would begat an increase of power for other countries, including Russia and China.
Six Republican senators are co-sponsors of Cruz’s legislation, and another 21 House Republicans signed onto similar legislation emerging from that chamber. Seven Texans are among the House co-sponsors: U.S. Reps. Brian Babin of Woodville, Joe Barton of Ennis, Kevin Brady of the Woodlands, Michael Burgess of Lewisville, John Culberson of Houston, Bill Flores of Bryan and Louie Gohmert of Tyler.
But the debate comes at a dicey moment in Washington.
The central focus of the September legislative stretch is to pass a short-term bill that will keep the government funded past Sept. 30. September negotiations are often dramatic. The 2013 negotiations escalated into a government shutdown, and the 2015 round ended with then-Speaker John A. Boehner’s retirement.
Vulnerable House and Senate incumbents are eager to pass a bill and quickly return home to campaign.
Cruz's bid to block the Internet transition could become part of the debate over that funding bill, which could put the bill's fate in jeopardy.
Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration are flabbergasted at the injection of a relatively obscure issue into such a major budget negotiation.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest deflected questions from reporters Wednesday afternoon over whether President Obama might veto a funding bill that would include the ICANN issue.
“We should point out the ironic position of the small government advocates suggesting that the federal government should continue to be in control of internet domain names,” he said.
Earnest further questioned whether a funding bill with an “ideological” addition would even pass Congress.
As for the Wednesday Senate hearings, the tone was heated between the subcommittee chairman and the Obama administration’s point person on the issue from the Department of Commerce.
Cruz delivered an ominous warning to the witness, Lawrence E. Strickling, the Commerce Department’s assistant secretary for communications and information, when Cruz accused the Department of Commerce of violating federal law by spending government money to prepare for the transition.
At several points, Cruz and Strickling interrupted and talked over each other with conflicting interpretations of federal law. The exchange culminated with Cruz threatening Strickling’s subordinates with prison.
“I want to speak for a moment, to the employees who work for you … the legal prohibitions have been passed by Congress and signed into law by the president,” Cruz said. “If your political superiors instruct you to proceed with this transition, to spend your time, to spend one penny of government money, you have an obligation as an employee of the federal government to decline that instruction.”
Cruz then added: “You are risking personal criminal liability of up to two years in prison.”
Strickling responded with visible anger.
“Senator, we have followed the law. We have not relinquished our responsibility,” he said. “I’m outraged that you are accusing us of doing that.”
Read related coverage from the Tribune:
- Cruz meets with Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence - but continues to withhold his endorsement from presidential nominee Donald Trump.
- U.S. Sen. John Cornyn declines to endorse Cruz for re-election.
- As Ted Cruz returns to the U.S. Capitol and the job he was working so hard to transcend — rank-and-file senator — he will likely be in hostile territory.