Internet Oversight Stirs Lawmakers

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s announcement that it is planning to relinquish its longtime oversight role over the Internet’s basic structure has stirred much questioning on Capitol Hill, particularly from Republican lawmakers. In particular, Members of Congress are concerned by the potential for a foreign government to attempt to fill the vacuum and undermine Internet freedom.

While the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has long supervised the assignment of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and domain names, the agency announced last month its intention to transition that authority to the global private sector. 

In a hearing before the Communications Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chairman Walden noted that NTIA had alarmed a broad spectrum of leaders, from former President Bill Clinton to his old adversary, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Chairman Walden signaled his own wariness, “Make no mistake; threats to the openness and freedom of the Internet are real…. If there are not sufficient safeguards in place to prevent foreign government intrusion, then this concept should go no further. Even with these guarantees, I remain concerned about the opportunities for abuse.”

In addition, in a letter to the NTIA led by Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), 35 Republican Senators declared, “We strongly support the existing bottom-up, multistakeholder approach to Internet governance that has led to immense prosperity and empowerment for individuals around the world…. Replacing NTIA’s role with another governmental organization would be disastrous, and we would vigorously oppose such a plan. We must not allow the IANA [“Internet Assigned Numbers Authority”] functions to fall under the control of repressive governments, America’s enemies, or unaccountable bureaucrats.”

House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA), however, had a different perspective. “This Committee should monitor NTIA’s and ICANN’s efforts closely, but we must resist the calls for reactionary legislation that would needlessly tie the hands of the agency,” he said. “Not only are these efforts inconsistent with Congress’ longstanding and bipartisan support for the multistakeholder model, they also send a dangerous signal to the rest of the world that we lack faith in the existing multistakeholder system.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: April 4, 2014