David Redl is President Donald Trump’s eminently qualified nominee to become administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. He has not yet been confirmed thanks to Senate obstruction, principally from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
A graduate of the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University, Redl has worked for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce since 2011, taking over the role of chief counsel in 2013. His work at the committee focused extensively on efforts to reauthorize broadcasting regulations and free up spectrum for commercial use.
These are topics most Americans don’t spend much time thinking about, but their technical nature disguises how ubiquitous they are in our daily lives. Every time you use your cellphone or watch over-the-air television, you rely on spectrum policies being set up the right way. The growing number of wireless devices and demand for wireless bandwidth means the complexities of spectrum policy will only increase in the future, so someone like Redl would be a valuable asset at the helm of NTIA, which oversees the federal government’s use of spectrum.
Despite this background and strong conservative credentials, Redl has been the subject of a largely unrelated fight waged by the junior senator from Texas over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. Cruz continues to raise objections about the now-completed transfer of stewardship of IANA functions from NTIA to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN is a private, nonprofit company that uses a multistakeholder process to incorporate all internet users’ interests and to make consensus decisions about internet protocols and governance.
The IANA functions pertain to what is basically the internet’s phonebook. When you type a URL like google.com into your web browser, that domain name has to be translated into an IP address (e.g., 184.108.40.206) so that your request can be routed to the right place and return what you asked for. IANA is responsible for managing those addresses and the Domain Name System.
Until October 2016, NTIA provided oversight and stewardship of these functions. But the United States had declared its intent to step back from that global role since 1998. Last year, the tasks were finally relocated to ICANN.
This transition was the last step toward a fully privatized internet with protocols coordinated and maintained by ICANN. It’s a process in which national governments may provide input, but they are not voting members. That’s why we should applaud the transition as the right policy, to remove any justification that repressive governments might conjure to justify compromising the internet’s freedom from state control.
Cruz, however, has argued that the move was tantamount to an “internet giveaway” that would give authoritarian governments control over the internet and free speech. This view clearly does not comport with the facts. Authoritarian governments wanted nothing more than to see the IANA transition fail, because they would like to use the U.S. government’s central involvement in global internet policy to justify malicious interventions. Indeed, some states have in the past managed to rally countries in the United Nations International Telecommunication Union toward favoring more government control.
Going through with the transition now gives the United States more diplomatic clout to resist attempts by the United Nations and authoritarian governments to impose themselves on the internet. It’s true that the U.S. government must persuade countries that are on the fence to join the side of a free internet, but that could not be avoided in any situation. While ICANN is not an ideal governance body, utilizing its multistakeholder process is a far better option than emboldening national governments in their attempts to gain more power over the internet.
Redl has expressed his own intention to protect the internet from government intervention. During his Senate confirmation hearing he pledged that, if confirmed, he would “work with Congress to counter any actions by authoritarian regimes to enhance their role with respect to internet governance.” This is exactly the right position for United States to take.
Sen. Cruz was wrong to oppose the transition last year, and he is wrong to use it as a reason to stall the confirmation of a fellow Republican with impeccable credentials. The NTIA needs a director in order to function effectively. Delaying Redl’s appointment will not put the IANA genie back in the bottle. It simply prevents the agency from doing its job.
Image by Andrew Cline