The United States' handover of a role overseeing a technical part of the Internet wouldn't make it easier for regimes in Russia or China to control and censor the Web, according to the Obama administration.
In fact, the handover makes it harder for those countries to seize control of the Internet, said Larry Strickling, administrator of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
"Taking this action is the best measure to prevent authoritarian regimes from expanding their restrictive policies beyond their borders," he told the subcommittee.
"There's no question that the U.S. role in this has served as a talking point for countries like Russia and other authoritarian regimes," he added. "When they are trying to convince countries in the developing world to join them and some of their policies, they use this as an argument. So yes, we're taking that argument away, so we hope that developing countries would approach these issues with a different mindset as a result."
NTIA has a contract through the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit corporation, which gives it oversight of the technical domain name system. Last month, the administration announced that it wanted to transition that control over to a multistakeholder model, an announcement cheered by a number of tech companies.
Republicans in Congress fear that the proposal would give oppressive governments a larger role in regulating the Internet. Former President Bill Clinton, among others, echoed their skepticism.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said on Thursday that the U.S. is "still is a beacon in the world for freedom, and I think we can rightly take credit for the freedom that exists on the Internet today in the manner that it has unfolded."
"The concern I have and others have is, when we let go of that final link ... will that institution be safer from those efforts to regulate the Internet, or will it be more exposed because it no longer has the protection of the United States?" he asked.
As Strickland was testifying in the Judiciary subcommittee, lawmakers in the House Energy and Commerce Committee were marking up legislation to scuttle the administration's decision until the Government Accountability Office completes a study in the subject.
The Obama administration has opposed the bill, and Strickling said today that enacting it would "send the wrong signal" to the world.
"The timing of this bill would be particularly damaging for supporters of the multistakeholder model."