Republicans push for answers on feared Internet takeover

Republicans in the House and Senate wants answers from the Obama administration about whether a recent Commerce Department decision will threaten the open Internet.

Through questions — both in a House hearing and Senate letter — Republicans on Wednesday pushed the Commerce Department to justify its decision to step back from its oversight role of the Internet’s Web address system.

“We must not allow the IANA functions to fall under the control of repressive governments, America’s enemies or unaccountable bureaucrats,” a group of 35 Senate Republicans said in a letter to the Commerce Department Wednesday.

The concerns come after last month’s announcement from the Commerce Department that it would be relinquishing from its oversight role of the technical side of the Internet’s Web address system, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

Currently, IANA is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) through a contract with the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). That contract needs to be renewed every two years and expires in 2015.

Under the administration’s plans, ICANN will bring together Internet stakeholders to develop a plan to transition IANA oversight away from the U.S. government. 

Proponents of the shift in Internet management say it’s a move towards a more globalized Internet, while critics — including Congressional Republicans — say it could open the door for oppressive governments to change the open nature of the Internet.

ADVERTISEMENT
During a hearing held by the House Commerce subcommittee on Technology, House Republicans pushed NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling and ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade to answer to those concerns.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) — who described himself as “neutral but suspicious of this proposal” — asked why the government would want to move away from a system backed by the U.S.’ commitment to a free Internet.

“People like me are a little bit afraid that if NTIA steps back  … the next government … might not take the same attitude as the U.S. government” towards online freedom, he said.

“What’s so wrong with the current system that we want to change it?”

Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) both threw their weight behind a bill to stop the oversight transition from committee Republicans, including Committee Vice chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).

That bill would prevent the administration from moving forward with its plans to relinquish IANA oversight until the proposal has been reviewed by the Government Accountability Office.

“This is a prudent idea and one we will move forward on very soon,” Walden said.

Upton pledged “to announce a markup schedule soon” to consider requiring the administration to “step on the breaks.”

Defending the administration’s position, Strickling repeatedly told subcommittee members that his agency’s oversight is limited to the technical side of domain name system, and a transition to move oversight away from the U.S. government has been planned since 1998.

“People, I think, assume we have much more control over this than we actually do,” he said.

“We do not exercise any control of oversight over policy making. That is performed today by the global multistakeholder community” through ICANN, he continued.

Strickling also repeated to members his pledge that the NTIA will not allow an oversight tradition that left open the possibility of oversight from any government or governmental group.

Shimkus pushed Strickling and Chehade on whether they would support a Congressional review of the announced transition, which would be required under the bill from House Commerce Republicans. 

“Don’t you think we have a right to ask these questions,” he asked.

Both witnesses pledged transparency and inclusiveness throughout the transition process without commenting specifically on Shimkus’ bill.

“I will commit to you … that everything we were asked to do we will do in full transparency to you and to the world,” he said.

Without transparency and inclusiveness, “this process is not legitimate,” the said.

Chehade and Strickling found friends in the subcommittee’s Democrats, including ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Eshoo called the transition “an important step in the evolution of the Internet” and said fears of an Internet takeover were overblown.

“That’s a huge leapfrog when we go from NTIA to North Korea,” she said.

Republicans should appreciate the Commerce Department’s decision to relinquish IANA oversight, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) said.

“I would think my colleagues over here,” he said, motioning to the Republicans on the subcommittee, “would love the notion that the government is transitioning something over to the private sector.”

Doyle thanked Strickling and Chehade for answering the subcommittee’s questions, which went “a long away in clearing up some of the misconceptions coming from this announcement.”

“It’s not like we’re giving up control of something,” he said. “We don’t control it.”