Commerce Official Defends Web-Oversight Plan

By Gautham Nagesh

A top Commerce Department official on Thursday defended the Obama administration’s plan to relinquish U.S. oversight of the body that manages Internet domain names and addresses, pushing back against growing Republican opposition to the move.

The administration said last month that it planned to step back from supervising the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which manages the system of domain names and addresses that serve as signposts on the Internet.

The Commerce Department, which oversees Icann’s contract to manage the domain-name system, plans to hand oversight of Icann to a new body composed of nonprofit groups, engineers and companies, an arrangement similar to the way other technical aspects of the Internet are managed.

Dueling views have emerged over the plan on Capitol Hill. Some Republicans have started to question the proposed transfer, saying the U.S. is uniquely suited to serve as a steward of the Internet’s plumbing.

Many Democrats support the administration’s plan, arguing that the Internet is global and should be managed by the international community.

Democrats say they are concerned that the matter is becoming politicized, potentially undermining the U.S. abroad in its campaign for Internet freedom.

U.S. credibility already has suffered following disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about American surveillance and other activities.

Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Strickling told a House Judiciary subcommittee Thursday that the administration’s plan didn’t amount to the U.S. “giving away the Internet.” He said nothing about the transfer of responsibility for Icann would change the way the Internet operates.

Mr. Strickling said it was crucial for the U.S. to back away from Icann to build international trust and cooperation in the management of the Internet.

“There is no one party—government or industry, including the U.S. government—that controls the Internet. The Internet is a decentralized network of networks,” he said.

Congressional Republicans opposed to the transfer say it eventually could lead to censorship, and give the United Nations or repressive governments more control over the Internet’ architecture.

Several Republican lawmakers are backing a bill that would require an independent review by the Government Accountability Office before the transfer could be completed. In a party-line vote, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee approved the bill on Thursday, sending it to the full committee.

“We also have no intention of letting the Obama administration cede oversight of the fundamental foundation of the Internet—address and naming authority—without the due diligence to ensure that these functions couldn’t be co-opted by foreign entities that don’t share our values,” subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R., Ore.) said in his opening statement.

Democrats say opponents of the transition are ignoring assurances from the Commerce Department and Icann that they won’t accept an oversight structure that includes governmental or U.N. control.

Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.) accused his Republican colleagues of making a “tempest in a teapot.”

A spokeswoman for the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration voiced opposition to the legislation, citing support from companies and human-rights groups for Icann’s transfer.

“The bill sends the wrong signal to the global Internet community about the U.S.’s continued support for the global multistakeholder Internet governance model,” she said.

While concern about the transfer has spread, it still appears confined to lawmakers who deal frequently with Internet and technology issues.

Few members attended the Judiciary subcommittee’s hearing on the proposed transfer. Among those who did, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) accused the administration of trying to shut down debate on a move that could determine the future of the Internet.

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