Obama official faces critics of plan to cede Internet oversight

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The Obama administration on Wednesday will try and ease congressional concerns about its decision to relinquish oversight over the back end of the Internet.

On Wednesday, the House Commerce Committee — members of which have already introduced a bill to block the administration’s plan — will consider whether the Commerce Department’s move would lead to a more global open Internet or would open the door to control by censorship-prone governments.

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Lawrence Strickling, who will be testifying in his role as head of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said the administration is “open to a discussion” about the oversight change.

“I think it’s important that everyone understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Strickling told The Hill.

Last month, the NTIA announced it would begin a process to transition out of its oversight role of the technical back end of the Internet’s Web address system.

Currently, that system is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) under a contract with the U.S. government that must be renewed every two years.

Under the Commerce Department’s plan, ICANN — which is also managing the rollout of more than 1,000 top-level domain names — would bring together Internet stakeholders to develop a plan to transition oversight of the back-end system away from the U.S. government by September 2015.

Advocates, including Democrats on the House Commerce Committee, say the move would result in a more global and open Internet free from disproportionate input from any one government.

But critics of the administration’s move to relinquish oversight of the technical system, known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), say  the U.S. would lose its most direct role in Internet governance, possibly allowing for more interference by repressive governments, such as China and Russia.

Strickling said the administration doesn’t think there’s any “serious chance” that the administration’s move would endanger the Internet.

“We’ve made it crystal clear that we will not accept a proposal that would turn our role over to any government or any group of governments,” he said.

Strickling said critics often misunderstand the administration’s current role and what it means for the U.S. government to be relinquishing it.

“I’ve heard people use broad terms like … we’re giving up control of the Internet, and that’s just not happening here,” he said.
“The actual role that we’re talking about giving up is literally checking the accuracy of updates and changes to the” technical back end of the system, he said.

Additionally, the U.S. government would continue to contribute to Internet governance through its participation in ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, which is open to all countries’ governments.

Members of the House Commerce Committee, including Vice Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Rep. John Shimkus (R-ill.), introduced a bill last month that would require a government study before the Commerce Department could relinquish its oversight role of IANA.

In a statement announcing the bill, Blackburn warned that the U.S. government “can’t let the Internet turn into another Russian land grab.”

“It’s imperative that this administration reports to Congress before they can take any steps that would turn over control of the Internet,” she said.

Strickling said his agency is open to congressional involvement in the process.

“We certainly don’t shy away from the idea of getting these issues out there and getting them discussed,” he said.

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé will also testify at Wednesday’s hearing in defense of the administration’s decision.

In his written testimony, he said the Commerce Department’s decision to relinquish its oversight role “will not affect the status quo” of an open, global Internet.

The move, he said in the testimony, “in fact represents the final triumph of the American ideal for self-governance by the Internet community, free from government control, even our own.”

Some in the tech industry agree that the U.S. stepping back from its technical oversight role is a boon to the Internet.

The transition is “a critical step” toward a more global system, David Gross, a partner at Wiley Rein, told the Commerce Committee in written testimony.

Gross will testify Wednesday on behalf of the Internet Governance Coalition, a group of major tech and telecom companies including Google, Microsoft, Amazon, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.

Through a “careful transition” of IANA oversight following the principles laid out by the NTIA, the U.S. will “succeed in maintaining the freedom, openness, security and stability of the network we have all enjoyed since its inception,” Gross wrote.

But other industry groups are pressing for more information about will happen once the U.S. government hands off IANA oversight.

Concerned members of Congress should consider whether proposals hold ICANN accountable to its commitment to an open, global Internet, according to Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, which includes Facebook, Yahoo and AOL.

“The minute we let go of the IANA contract, that’s our one shot,” DelBianco said. “One we let it go, we don’t have the ability to pull it back.”

Strickling said he’s confident ICANN stakeholders will take the job seriously.

Internet stakeholders have an incentive to “present as ironclad a proposal that will keep the Internet free and open going forward,” he said.

 “Unless and until we get such a proposal, it will be status quo.”