Reporting by journalists at The Washington Post and elsewhere has uncovered extensive ties between Donald Trump and Russia. Trump has made little secret of his personal admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he has praised as having "great control over his country." The Republican presidential nominee even appeared to openly solicit Russian hacking of Hillary Clinton's emails — to the point that critics have accused him of treason.
So it may seem surprising to hear the Trump campaign suddenly change its tone on Russia this week over an obscure battle on Internet policy. Taking a swipe at Russia's support for Internet censorship, a Trump policy adviser warned Wednesday against giving the Kremlin too much say in how the Internet should be governed. The statement reads like a snub to Putin — that is, until you realize that Trump's own policy could wind up giving the Russian leader precisely what he wants.
Let's start with the policy itself. Trump opposes the decision by the U.S. government to officially let an international nonprofit manage the Internet's domain name system, or the DNS. The DNS is what helps computers understand what you mean when you type in an address such as google.com. This nonprofit organization, known as ICANN, has already been managing the DNS for decades. ICANN is made up of businesses, public interest groups and governments from various nations — such as the United States, China and Russia.
On paper, the United States is technically still in control; it has simply been contracting out the job to ICANN for the past 20 or so years. But by ceding that symbolic authority to ICANN for the first time, the United States will be handing over that responsibility. To that extent, it's true that foreign regimes will technically see an increase in influence over the world's Internet.
Exactly how much influence is where people disagree. Opponents of the transition, like Trump, essentially argue that it amounts to a historic crisis. In the words of Trump adviser Stephen Miller on Wednesday:
Internet freedom is now at risk with the President’s intent to cede control to international interests, including countries like China and Russia, which have a long track record of trying to impose online censorship. Congress needs to act, or Internet freedom will be lost for good, since there will be no way to make it great again once it is lost.
Another opponent of the handover, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), has been beating this drum for months.
According to to some of the Internet's most respected experts, however, the argument against letting ICANN manage the DNS is flawed. Take Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989. He calls the argument put forward by Trump and Cruz "misguided." He says the United States can no more "control" ICANN to prevent Russia from meddling with the Internet than Russia can bend ICANN to serve its own ends.
"Sen. Cruz’s plan to ride to the defense of the Internet on a white horse is based on a fundamental misconception," Berners-Lee wrote in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post.
Although Russia could seek loopholes in the new system, many experts — including some who lean Republican — say the danger is indirect at best. That's because ICANN is explicitly set up to prevent any one stakeholder from having too much power.
For example, governments can only give advice to ICANN's decision-making board, and then only as a committee. Assuming the governments all agreed on a course of action — unlikely if, say, Russia and the United States were at odds over some policy — the decision-making board can still vote to reject their recommendation. And if there isn't a consensus? The board doesn't have to take the governmental committee's advice into account at all.
Couldn't Russia or China try an end-run and stack the board with its people? It's a possibility, but unlikely, according to Internet pioneer Vint Cerf. "A great many conditions must be satisfied" before anything like that could occur, Cerf wrote in May.
Moreover, even if Russia somehow managed to assert control over ICANN, the nonprofit would have little way of directly censoring the Internet, Berners-Lee said. The DNS is responsible for little more than cataloging the Internet's names and addresses. It doesn't control what you see when you arrive at a website. Plus, governments like Russia's already censor the Internet with few checks on their power, said Berners-Lee; they don't need ICANN's rubber stamp to do so.
In short, policy experts are coming out of the woodwork to say that Cruz and Trump are wrong. The pair's argument earned them three Pinocchios from Glenn Kessler, who writes the Post's Fact Checker column.
According to critics, Trump's call to stop the transition would actually wind up helping Putin rather than undermining the Russian leader.
"If the U.S. is forced to abort the transition now it would play right into the hands of authoritarian states," said Milton Mueller, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "'Look,' they will say, 'the U.S. wants to control the Internet. Why can’t we?'"
If this is how Trump's policy plays in Russia, it could ultimately backfire against U.S. interests in a free and open Internet. (A Trump spokesperson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.)
As long as the United States retains its mostly symbolic "authority" over the Internet DNS it risks giving other countries ammunition to claim that they, too, should be allowed to "control" the Internet in ways that suit themselves. Moving forward with the transition, experts say, largely silences those claims.