House panel passes bill to delay administration's Internet shift

The House Commerce subcommittee on Technology voted Thursday to halt the Obama administration’s plan to relinquish U.S. oversight of the Internet’s Web address system.

Over objections and amendments from Democrats, the subcommittee’s 16 Republicans approved the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act, which would prevent the Commerce Department from relinquishing its oversight role of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

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The bill — authored by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) — is a response to the Commerce Department’s announcement earlier this year that it is beginning a process to have global Internet stakeholders develop a plan to transition the IANA oversight role away from the U.S.

While some say the move away from U.S. oversight is a step toward a more global government, critics — including Republicans on the Hill — say the decision to step back from Internet management could allow oppressive governments to censor online speech.

The DOTCOM Act would prevent the Commerce Department from making its transition until Congress has the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the potential outcomes of the transition.

“I don’t understand why it’s so onerous to have the GAO simply take a look at the proposal,” subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said Thursday.

Walden compared the yet-to-be-developed transition plan to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. 

Like with that law, Congress would have to accept the change before understanding the details, he said. “Pass it so you can find out what’s in it.”

Subcommittee Democrats said they would support a GAO report on the transition but opposed binding the administration’s decision to that report.

“We’re not opposed to the GAO examining this, but you have additional language in the underlying legislation that just ties the hands of the administration and the [Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration] behind their back,” ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said.

She pointed to previous votes and statements from subcommittee members indicating their support for an Internet without government control and noted the plan to relinquish IANA oversight was first developed in 1998.

“There is no plan to turn the Internet over to rogue governments,” she said. “The plan is to stick with the plan.”

Eshoo called the bill “a source of embarrassment to a committee that has operated for the most part in a respectful, bipartisan way” and accused the Republicans of playing politics with the Internet transition.

“If this is legislation directed at the president, who you can’t stand, I don’t think that’s a good way to legislate,” she said.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) accused Republicans of perpetuating the idea that the U.S. currently controls the Internet.

Foreign countries worry about the U.S. having disproportionate control over the Internet, and the Republican bill to delay the oversight transition will intensify those fears, he said.

Doyle introduced an amendment that would require a GAO study but would not bind the Commerce Department to that study. In a vote down party lines, Republicans rejected the amendment.

Members of Congress can already request GAO studies, Shimkus said. “The whole idea is to put some teeth into this process.”