Tech advocacy groups back Internet oversight shift

A coalition of tech advocacy groups is backing the Obama administration's move to relinquish oversight of the technical side of the Web address system.

"This move could help thwart government overreach in Internet governance, which would have devastating implications for human rights worldwide," the coalition said in a Tuesday letter to the top Republicans and Democrats on the House Commerce Committee.

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Signatories include the Center for Democracy and Technology, Public Knowledge, the New America Foundation and Access.

The letter of support comes before a Wednesday hearing on the topic at the House Commerce subcommittee on Technology.

The hearing will focus on the Commerce Department's announcement from last month that it will be handing over its oversight role of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the technical side of the domain name system. That system is currently managed by the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) under a contract with the U.S. government that must be renewed every two years and expires in September 2015.

Under the Commerce Department's plan, ICANN will convene stakeholders to develop a plan to transition oversight away from the U.S. government.

Critics of the Commerce Department's plan say the move could open the door for oppressive governments to seize control of the Internet and crack down on free speech online.

But proponents of the Internet management shift — including the tech advocacy groups behind this week's letter to the Commerce Committee — say the move would lead to a more globalized, open Internet.

The groups wrote that the Commerce Department's move would likely result in fewer, not more, attempts from foreign governments to control the Internet, as it will discredit other countries' claims that the U.S. government has a disproportionate role in Internet governance. 

While the Commerce Department has been "largely hands off" in its oversight of IANA, there is "growing opposition from the international community for the simple fact that a single government performs an oversight role for what is clearly a global resource," the groups said.

"This perceived imbalance has played into the hands of governments seeking to undermine the open, decentralized, participatory, bottom-­up multistakeholder model of Internet governance."

Transitioning oversight of IANA from the U.S. government to the global community would "alleviate international pressure" from those governments, the letter said.

The group's letter also took aim at a bill from Republicans on the House Commerce Committee — including Vice Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) — that would prevent the Commerce Department from moving out of its oversight role until the Government Accountability Office reports to Congress on the pros and cons of the shift.

While the bill is "intended to protect human rights and the free and open Internet," it "could have the opposite effect," the groups wrote.

"Forestalling the transfer of the IANA functions to the global multistakeholder community could further empower critics who favor a governmental or intergovernmental model of Internet governance," the letter said.

The groups said they look forward to working with members of the subcommittee and pledged to "engage deeply in the transition process to ensure that human rights are respected by any future Internet governance arrangement."