The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) final response to a March 2014 Americans for Limited Government Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request has revealed very cozy ties between the agency and Google vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocols — and of the government contractor that handled the Internet’s domain name system, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
On March 19, 2014, NTIA official Fiona Alexander wrote an email to Cerf initially soliciting an oped to bolster the government’s case in favor of the U.S. proposal to transition oversight of the Internet’s domain name system, writing, “While the press has gotten better there have been a couple of unhelpful oped’s including one in tod[a]y’s Wall Street Journal. Obviously those folks are uni[n]formed but our press folks were wondering if you were going to write something.”
NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling was cc’ed on the email.
Alexander wanted a response to the Wall Street Journal’s L. Gordon Crovitz’s March 19, 2014 criticism of the transition, which he called a surrender of U.S. sovereignty and a violation of the constitutional requirement of a vote of Congress to dispose of U.S. property.
It turned out Cerf had already written an oped on the subject for ICANN, but was having trouble getting sign-off from Google for similar efforts. Cerf expressed frustration, writing, “I am frankly struggling with the PR team at Google who seem very reluctant to let me get out in front of this because they don’t want this to be about Google. Let me see if we can accelerate the ICANN piece.”
Cerf attached his oped for the agency to review, which officials were more than willing to oblige, offering edits to the oped. Alexander replied, “Larry and I are getting ready to board for the flight to Singapore so Juliana and Heather will be following up with you directly. We have a few suggestions including the need to directly counter the WSJ opinion piece today that says this will facilitate/allow censorshiop [sic].”
“Obviously this guy lacks any technical understanding,” Alexander added, referring to Crovitz.
Then, Juliana Gruenwald replied to everyone, offering, “As Fiona said, she and Larry believe it would be helpful to add a line to your piece countering the Wall Street Journal op-ed’s claim that this will lead to censorship.”
Gruenwald also offered for Cerf to insert an additional paragraph, writing, “the paragraph below could be helpful to counter claims that this will lead to a governmental takeover of the DNS. (This graph could possibly go below the line related to censorship)…”
The suggested additional paragraph read, “There has been some concern that this could lead to a governmental takeover of these functions. There is little likelihood of that outcome and we would oppose such a development. The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which made Friday’s announcement, has made it clear that it would not accept a proposal that replaces NTIA’s role with a government led or an inter-governmental solution.”
Agency officials even offered to help place the oped, which was eventually published in May/June 2014 edition of IEEE Computing Society.
Although the line about censorship never made the cut in the final oped, a shortened version of the suggested paragraph on governmental takeover did ultimately get published: “Some concern has arisen that the NTIA’s proposed change could lead to a governmental takeover of these functions. We would oppose such a development. The NTIA has made it clear that it would not accept a proposal that replaces its role with a government-led or intergovernmental solution.”
This raises some disturbing questions.
Just how ethical is it for agencies to shape propaganda in private media outlets authored by an employee of a corporation, Google, that owns many top-level domains — including .ads, .app, and others — that stood to benefit from the government action creating the new Internet domain name system cartel that the oped expressly advocated for?
Making matters worse, by covertly inserting government talking points into an oped on an issue that was heavily lobbied in favor of by Google, the agency was directly engaged in propaganda on an issue of public import, which was prohibited in Title E, Section 718 of the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act: “No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used directly or indirectly, including by private contractor, for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by the Congress.”
Congress passes this prohibition in the annual appropriations and omnibus spending bills, first appearing in 1952.
Further complicating the matter, the oped was actually not on behalf of Google, but on behalf of ICANN, which at the time was an NTIA government contractor of the very IANA functions the oped advocated relinquishing to ICANN.
As Cerf noted in his email to NTIA’s Alexander, “ICANN has an op-ed…” and “[I] am urging ICANN to get this out” and “Let me see if we can accelerate the ICANN piece.”
A 1988 then-Government Accounting Office decision clearly defined such a violation as covert propaganda: “Our decisions have defined covert propaganda as materials such as editorials or other articles prepared by an agency or its contractors at the behest of the agency and circulated as the ostensible position of parties outside the agency… A critical element of covert propaganda is the concealment of the agency’s role in sponsoring such material.”
Surely, that includes inserting agency talking points into privately placed opeds without direct attribution as to the source of all non-authored content.
This particular FOIA responsive document was not redacted, no privileged exemptions were cited in it, but the agency held onto it as long as it possibly could. For almost three years — along with a trove of other redacted documents that did cite privileged exemptions. Why? Surely it was embarrassing.
But it might have been devastating at the time. The fact that the agency would collude with a vice president at Google and a government contractor, ICANN, illegally as it turned out, in formulating an oped beneficial to Google and the monopolist ICANN, would have been scandalous.
Such a scandal might have very well torpedoed public opinion against the Internet transition. Who knows?
And the agency apparently shielded it from public disclosure under FOIA — for almost three years. Did agency lawyers block the disclosure, knowing the oped scandal was illegal?
Because, we’re pretty sure that’s illegal, too. A big-time felony, in fact, under 18 U.S. Code Section 1519: “Whoever knowingly … conceals [or] covers up … any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States … in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
Remember, the crime is bad, but the cover-up is always worse.
There is no question NTIA believed Americans for Limited Government was entitled to these documents under FOIA — they were eventually released. Years later. What was the hold up?
Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning blasted the FOIA bombshell disclosures in a statement, saying: “This revelation raises the question of whether NTIA engaged in illegal covert propaganda by placing talking points into an oped by a Google employee on behalf of a government contractor, ICANN, prohibited conduct by both agencies and contractors in the 2014 spending bill. Also, whether it was covered up to help justify creation of the Internet monopoly after we issued a legitimate Freedom of Information Act request the same year.”
Manning added in conclusion, “The seeming collusion between the NTIA and the corporations Google and ICANN that stood to benefit the most from the Internet transition was an unbelievable abuse of power. All this warrants immediate investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and Congressional committees — and calls into question the very legitimacy of the Internet transition itself.”