President Donald Trump’s pick for a top Commerce Department post privately assured Republican senators that he would look at reversing the Obama administration’s decision to give up U.S. oversight of the internet, according to documents newly obtained by POLITICO.
David Redl, now the head of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, made the pledge last summer to Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who had condemned the move to international control as a giveaway that could empower authoritarian governments. Trump has also attacked former President Barack Obama’s handover, describing it as a “stupid” decision that would turn over “the internet to foreigners.”
Redl promised the senators that he would recommend convening a “panel of experts to investigate options for unwinding the transition,” according to a letter that POLITICO obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
It’s unclear whether Redl, who took office two months ago, has followed through on the pledge, or whether the Commerce Department even has the ability to reverse the handover at this point. But his words appear to contradict public statements from both Redl and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — while offering signs that Trump’s “America First” mantra may be intruding into the administration’s approach to the internet.
The Senate confirmed Redl in November after he overcame objections from Cruz, who has long railed against Obama’s move to relinquish U.S. government authority over ICANN, the global nonprofit that manages the internet’s domain name system. The change took effect in October 2016, meaning that ICANN has now been an independent entity for more than a year.
Cruz has repeatedly warned that giving up that control would lead to an online power grab by countries like China and Russia and threaten freedom of speech around the world. He told Redl’s predecessor, Larry Strickling, that he could go to jail over the internet transition plan.
During the latter stages of the 2016 campaign, Trump sided with Cruz, his onetime bitter rival for the Republican presidential nomination, calling the handover “just one more way Obama-Clinton have sold out the citizens of this country.”
Spokespeople for NTIA, the Commerce Department and Cruz didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
ICANN handled domains like “.com” and “.org” under a U.S. government contract for years, but the Obama administration said it was always envisioned that U.S. oversight would be temporary and that the global “multistakeholder” model would eventually operate on its own. In practice, that meant untethering ICANN from its U.S. contract. Despite vocal criticism from a number of congressional Republicans, efforts to block the transition through legislation fell short.
Redl’s private assurances to Cruz are striking given that both he and Ross appeared to take the opposite view in public, casting doubt on the possibility of reversing Obama’s decision. During his June confirmation hearing, Redl said it would be “very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle,” while Ross said in January 2017 that he was “not aware that there’s a realistic way to do anything about it.”
But that stance appeared to change during Redl’s protracted confirmation process. Cruz took issue with Redl’s statements about the internet transition and put a hold on the nominee, sparking months of closed-door negotiations.
“I am not aware of any specific proposals to reverse the … transition, but I am interested in exploring ways to achieve this goal,” Redl told Cruz and Lee in his written responses, before suggesting the “panel of experts” be convened to look at reversing the handover.
He also said he would continue to monitor ICANN, which is based in Los Angeles.
“ICANN remains a California corporation, subject to the laws of the United States,” Redl wrote. “I will work with all parts of the U.S. government to ensure that ICANN operates with a level hand and respects the laws of the United States.”
Ross, in his own Aug. 1 letters to Cruz and Lee, said Redl “understands my position regarding ICANN” and “is eager to learn of any possible [mechanism] for reversing it.”
Cruz never disclosed his reasons for lifting his hold on Redl, a mystery that alarmed Democrats at the time.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) briefly blocked Redl himself over concerns that he’d cut some deal with Cruz, but he ultimately lifted his hold after about two weeks.
In an interview, Schatz said the idea of undoing the internet transition “may be an interesting political topic” but is ultimately a “fantasy.”
“We feel confident that there’s no going back,” he said, adding that Redl understands it’s “simply not practicable to go back to the old way even if we wanted to.”