Not So Fast: Lawmakers Balk At U.S. Internet Giveaway

The orderly transfer of Internet power that seemed like a foregone conclusion just weeks ago was cast into doubt Thursday during Congressional sub-committee hearings on the matter.

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The orderly transfer of Internet power that seemed like a foregone conclusion just a few weeks ago was cast into doubt Thursday during Congressional sub-committee hearings on the matter as lawmakers traded partisan barbs and debated an effort to delay the relinquishment for up to a year.

In a hearing before the House Commerce Committee's Subcommitee on Communications and Technology, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), proposed the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act bill, which would require the Government Accountability Office to examine the Internet transfer plan before it takes effect. The GAO review could take up to a year, officials said.

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"We should at least pause long enough to have an independent nonpartisan body we all respect look over [the transfer plan and determine] what effect it has,'" Walden said at the hearing. Subcommittee members voted 16-10 sharply along party lines to send DOTCOM Act proposal to the full committee.

Democrats on the committee accused Republicans of partisan grandstanding and paranoia, and said the committee should make good on what the U.S. has already vowed to do with regard to Internet management and administration.

"There is no plan to turn the Internet over to rogue governments. The plan is to stick with the plan," Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif). "It is not a conspiracy or a digital black helicopter. I suggest members go back and read what they voted for. You are unravelling what you voted for."

Eshoo called the DOTCOM Act proposal an "embarrassment to a committee that has mostly acted in a bipartisan way."

Late last month, the U.S. Commerce Dept. with little fanfare or political feedback announced it would give up most of its remaining control of the Net. The move was seen as a victory for a number of organizations and other nations lobbying hard to wrest Internet control from the Americans — particularly China and Russia, two countries with a history of censoring the online activities of their citizens. Since last fall, the leaders of groups involved in coordinating Internet infrastructure have been pushing for greater global control of the Internet. And of late their voices have been joined by researchers at Syracuse University, who argue it’s time for what little administrative control the U.S. has over the Internet to end.

While forces have been cited in the push to end America’s guardianship of Internet standards and practices, as well as authority over the Domain Name System (DNS), the underlying drumbeat is international displeasure over the Edward Snowden affair and the subsequent NSA spying scandal last summer, which revealed broad electronic surveillance by the U.S. that encompassed most forms of communication -- the Internet, in particular.

Currently, the policy and management duties of the Internet fall to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a Los Angeles-based non-profit contracted by the U.S. government in 1998 to coordinate IP address spaces and maintain central Internet address pools and DNS root registries. ICANN’s authority and responsibilities have been spelled out in a deal with the U.S. government known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) Functions contract.

The Commerce Dept.’s March decision was thought to end all that. When the contract expires in Sept. 2015, U.S. officials said, a new, as-yet-unnamed body -- perhaps within the United Nation -- would assume the responsibilities of basic Internet management and control. Under such a scenario, nations like Russia and China won’t gain any additional ability to censor content, but they will have control over the issue of domain names to groups they consider adversarial, critics note.

Debating the Internet on Two Fronts

At a separate hearing Thursday, members of a House Judiciary subcommittee were engaged in a similarly partisan debate over U.S. Internet interests.

“All hyperbole aside, this hearing is about nothing less than the future of the Internet and, significantly, who has the right, the ability and the authority to determine it,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). “Should it be decided by a few people in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Sao Paolo or even Silicon Valley, or should it be determined by those who use and stand to benefit from it?”

Goodlatte said America should “rightly take credit for the freedom that exists on the Internet today. When we let go of that final link, will that institution be safer from those efforts to regulate the Internet, or will it be more exposed because it no longer has the protection of the United States? It is clear that the U.S. has served as a critical and responsible backstop against censorship and as a promoter of openness and free speech on the Internet. The reality is that once we surrender our unique possession, it will be impossible to take it back if something goes awry."

That chorus was joined by a number of expert witnesses including Daniel Castro, an analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, who said ICANN without U.S. oversight “has the potential to grow into the world’s largest unregulated monopoly. We should be very mindful of creating a global organization with little accountability that can effectively tax the Internet.”

Paul Rosenzweig, founder of Red Branch Law and Consulting, agreed: “All of the restrictions are internal to ICANN. Times come where people waive those restrictions or change them, or they mutate over time.”

The Commerce Department has insisted all along that it will work toward a new Internet management system that supports and enhances the multi-stakeholder model; maintains the “security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS”; meets the needs and expectations of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and “maintains the openness of the Internet.”

That might be a tall order considering the forces amassed on the other side of the battle for Net control.

The skirmish began in October 2013 after a meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, where a group of Internet heavyweights representing the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the World Wide Web Consortium, the Internet Society, five regional Internet address registries and ICANN expressed “strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance.”

“The Internet and World Wide Web have brought major benefits in social and economic development worldwide,” read the Montevideo statement signed by 10 parties. “Both have been built and governed in the public interest through unique mechanisms for global multistakeholder Internet cooperation, which have been intrinsic to their success. [We] need to continually strengthen and evolve these mechanisms, in truly substantial ways, to be able to address emerging issues faced by stakeholders in the Internet.”

Since that meeting, the group has been calling for an acceleration of the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions toward an environment “in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.”

On Thursday, ICANN president and CEO Fadi Chehadé testified in the judiciary committee hearing, pressing lawmakers to stick to their vow of moving toward oversight of ICANN.

“This is the time to let go and show the world our trust,” Chehadé told the panel. “This is the moment the world wants to watch us trust our own model. Let’s not show them we don’t trust it.”

That globalization became the subject of a proposal crafted by researchers at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. The proposal, which could inform the new Internet structure now that the U.S. has agreed to cede control, calls for removing root zone management functions from ICANN and creating an independent, neutral private-sector consortium to take them over. The Syracuse plan will be presented at the Singapore ICANN meeting tomorrow, then formally submitted to the NETMundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance in Sao Paulo, Brazil, later this month.

“We think this plan provides the roadmap for making ICANN into a truly global and multistakeholder institution,” said Dr. Milton Mueller, professor at the iSchool and the proposal’s co-author.

Dr. Mueller concedes the state of Internet administration has been an understandable legacy of the Net’s origins in the U.S. Defense Department and National Science Foundation contracts. He says the U.S. maintained control of ICANN long after it promised to let go -- a situation that invites other governments, including authoritarian ones, to demand equal oversight authority over the DNS.

“Unless we take a consistent and principled approach to non-governmental Internet governance,” Dr. Mueller claimed, “it is only a matter of time before other governments succeed in bringing the coordination and management of the Internet under the control of intergovernmental treaty organizations.”

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