Lawmakers advance oversight bill on Internet domain transition

A House subcommittee approved a bill Wednesday that would require the Obama administration to give Congress 30 days to review any final plan before handing off oversight of the back end of the Internet. 

A bipartisan compromise in the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology was reached after Democrats objected to a earlier version that barred the transition until the Government Accountability Office weighted in on the pros and cons of the final plan.  

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Ranking Democrat Anna Eshoo (Calif.) said the revised bill "ensures there is a mechanism in place for public review before the transition is completed."

Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said the legislation could avoid an alternate route of cutting off funding for the transition. 

"I believe that if it is signed into law by the president, this legislation represents an alternative to a funds limitation that would achieve our shared goal — that is preventing harm to the Internet as we know it," Walden said. 

The bill was approved by voice vote in a markup that lasted just less than 30 minutes. 

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has been in charge oversight of the Internet’s domain name system, which allows users to easily search for websites using unique addresses. 

The government has historically contracted that role out to the non-profit group, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). When the government decided to go ahead with a long-established plan to transition away from government oversight, and to a multi-stakeholder process, it tasked ICANN to lead the transition. 

But Republicans in particular have been wary of the move, fearing the transition could give bad actors or foreign governments more control of the process. They have also questioned ICANN’s structure and ability to handle the move. 

The administration has consistently said it would not approve any plan that leaves the system in inter-government control. 

The compromise Wednesday would require the government to certify that a number of ICANN accountability measures were in place before the transition. The government would also have to report to Congress on why the plan does not harm global Internet openness.

The previous version of the bill would have required the GAO report before any transition. The GAO has already begun a review, but under the legislation, the review would not be a requirement of the hand off. 

Republicans have sought other ways to try and delay the transition. The party successfully added a provision into the FY 2015 appropriations bill that barred the NTIA from spending any funds on the transition this year.  

The House inserted a similar measure into the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill, though it is unlikely to become law. President Obama issued a veto threat against the spending bill for a number of reasons, including the funding block of the transition. 

The transition is expected to bleed into next year, meaning the Commerce Department will have to temporarily extend its contract with ICANN in the interim. 

ICANN president Fadi Chehade said the group would likely be able to give the government a transition proposal by the end of the year. He recently told Reuters he believes the whole process could be finished before the 2016 elections.