GOP questions constitutionality of Internet domain transition

GOP questions constitutionality of Internet domain transition

Leaders of the Judiciary committees in Congress are questioning whether the Obama administration's decision to give up oversight of parts of the Internet address system is unconstitutional. 

The GOP lawmakers on Monday asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to explore whether the handoff is allowed to take place without Congress’s approval. 

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They expressed concerned that the deal would involve the transfer of government property — something the Constitution says Congress needs to approve first. 

“[W]e are concerned that [the National Telecommunications and Information Administration] might potentially relinquish ownership of some form of United States property,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter

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Republicans have been wary of the Commerce Department’s announcement last year that it would give up its oversight role of the administrative functions of the Internet Domain Name System, which allows Web users to search the Internet using common addresses rather than the long string of numbers associated with them. 

The worries initially focused on the possibility of some other foreign power gaining a stronghold over the system after the transition. But many of those GOP concerns were relieved when ICANN — the non-profit that currently operates the system and is tasked with leading the transition — promised to put a number of safeguards in place. 

However, Cruz and others have still pressed to block the transition unless Congress is given the opportunity to sign off on the deal.  

The latest concerns focus on the so-called root zone file, which contains the names and records associated with each top-level domain name. The lawmakers note that it is a national IT asset and was created by the Defense Department. 

“Congress should be made aware of the legal status of the root zone file — or any other potential government property — before it makes any final decisions about whether to transfer the government’s Internet oversight functions to a third party,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter to the GAO. 

Lawmakers have raised concerns about the issue in the past, but the Commerce Department has argued “there would be no transfer of federal government property at the end of the contract.”

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) concluded in June that its decision to relinquish oversight of parts of the domain name system does not affect a separate agreement the government has to operate the root zone file. 

In the department’s explanation, it describes the entire domain names system as an address book. The handoff under consideration deals with administrative tasks and the processing of requests to make changes to that address book. But the address book itself — the root zone file —  is controlled by a separate contract with the company Verisign. 

“As noted above, NTIA maintains a separate cooperative agreement with Verisign,” the department’s lawyers wrote in June.