By JESSICA MEYERS and ERIN MERSHON
The Obama administration’s decision to relinquish oversight over the group that manages the Internet’s architecture has raised an early red flag with Republicans, who blast the move as a threat to free speech.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has managed the Web’s domain-name system under contract with the U.S. government for more than a decade — but the Los Angeles-based nonprofit has worked to transform itself into a global organization free of U.S. ties. European Union officials backed the globalization effort, which intensified with Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s sprawling surveillance programs.
The United States has always played a leading role in overseeing the management of .com and other domain names, but the administration announced Friday night that it will give up its oversight when the current contract expires in fall 2015. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, last month proposed establishing “a clear timeline” for globalizing ICANN and the duties it performs under the U.S. contract.
Exactly who would regulate the Web’s back-end is unclear, but the decision already has sparked backlash among some in the GOP, who warn it could allow the United Nations or authoritarian countries to step in and seize control of the Web.
“While I certainly agree our nation must stridently review our procedures regarding surveillance in light of the NSA controversy, to put ourselves in a situation where censorship-laden governments like China or Russia could take a firm hold on the Internet itself is truly a scary thought,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee and with the Commerce Department on this, because — to be blunt — the ‘global internet community’ this would empower has no First Amendment.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, minutes after the Friday announcement, tweeted: “Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the Internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous.”
And that’s just a start.
“This is red meat for the base,” said former Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.), who sponsored a resolution in 2012 aimed at keeping the Internet free of governmental control. “We’re at a critical time where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is proving he is capable of outmaneuvering the administration. … As they digest it, I think people are going to be very upset.”
U.S. lawmakers have long warned about the dangers of ceding ICANN’s authority to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency. They see the U.N. as a vehicle for countries with tight constraints to allow even greater online censorship. Congress unanimously passed Bono’s resolution ahead of a 2012 ITU meeting to reinforce America’s commitment to an open Internet.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration — the Commerce Department agency that made the announcement — emphasized ICANN would need to meet several principles ahead of the transition, including ensuring the openness of the Internet.
“We will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an intergovernmental solution,” the agency’s administrator, Larry Strickling, told reporters.
An NTIA official said Friday the agency had no intention of handing the contract over to another government or group, but wanted to find a method of oversight that incorporated broader voices. Only a proposal with broad community support would be approved, he said.
Several Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), applauded the planned transition. He called it “the next phase” toward “an independent entity that reflects the broad diversity of the global Internet community.”
Some Republicans reacted with more caution. A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said lawmakers “must consider this carefully and ensure this transition reflects the unanimous statement Congress made last year,” adding, “Under no circumstances should this contract transition to a government or government entity.”
Senate Commerce Committee ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) said the Internet “needs — and deserves — a strong multi-stakeholder system free from the control of any government or governmental entity,” and he vowed the committee would keep watch over the transition.
“There are people who want to see the Internet fall into the grip of the U.N. or who would allow ICANN to become an unaccountable organization with the power to control the Internet, and we cannot allow them to determine how this process plays out,” he said. But he added, “I trust the innovators and entrepreneurs more than the bureaucrats — whether they’re in D.C. or Brussels.”
At least one right-leaning group called on lawmakers to intervene.
“Congress needs to prevent the Obama administration from giving away U.S. control over the Internet to any international body,” Americans for Limited Government said in a statement. “Perhaps this latest egregious action by the Obama administration in their quest to deconstruct the United States will finally wake Congress up to their power of the purse responsibility as a co-equal partner in government.”
And GOP FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly shared concern “that NTIA’s announcement could set the stage for foreign governments and quasi-governmental entities to try to gain control of the Internet.”
“If this goes forward, the real work will be to ensure that ICANN satisfies the conditions outlined and that these principles cannot and will not be undermined in the future,” he said. “The only acceptable Internet governance structure, other than the current one, is a multi-stakeholder model completely free from foreign government intrusion.”
The GOP may have just found a midterm election rallying cry, Bono predicted.
“It could be the beginning of censorship,” she said. “Anyone frustrated with the UN Security Council could take a look at this and recognize potential problems.”