Obama Administration Denies ‘Abandoning the Internet’

An official argued that other governments won’t be allowed to seize power.

Press Conference by the U.S. Delegation to the World Radiocommunication Conference. Assistant Secretary Lawrence Strickling, U.S. Department of Commerce.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
March 19, 2014, 8:34 a.m.

A top Com­merce De­part­ment of­fi­cial pushed back Wed­nes­day against con­cerns that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is open­ing the door to an In­ter­net takeover by Rus­sia, China, and oth­er au­thor­it­ari­an re­gimes.

The fears stem from the Com­merce De­part­ment’s an­nounce­ment last Fri­day that it plans to give the In­ter­net Cor­por­a­tion for As­signed Names and Num­bers, an in­ter­na­tion­al non­profit group, con­trol over the tech­nic­al sys­tem that al­lows com­puters to con­nect to Web ad­dresses.

“Our an­nounce­ment has led to some mis­un­der­stand­ing about our plan, with some in­di­vidu­als rais­ing con­cern that the U.S. gov­ern­ment is abandon­ing the In­ter­net. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth,” Lawrence Strick­ling, the as­sist­ant Com­merce sec­ret­ary for com­mu­nic­a­tions and in­form­a­tion, said in a state­ment. “This an­nounce­ment in no way di­min­ishes our com­mit­ment to pre­serving the In­ter­net as an en­gine for eco­nom­ic growth and in­nov­a­tion.”

He said the U.S. gov­ern­ment will con­tin­ue to push IC­ANN to ad­opt po­lices that are in the in­terest of the United States and an open In­ter­net.

The trans­ition to full IC­ANN con­trol of the In­ter­net’s ad­dress sys­tem won’t hap­pen un­til Oc­to­ber 2015, and even then, there likely won’t be any sud­den changes. IC­ANN was already man­aging the sys­tem un­der a con­tract from the Com­merce De­part­ment.

But hav­ing the ul­ti­mate au­thor­ity over the do­main-name sys­tem was the most im­port­ant lever­age the United States had in de­bates over the op­er­a­tion of the In­ter­net. It was a trump card the U.S. could play if it wanted to veto an IC­ANN de­cision or fend off an in­ter­na­tion­al at­tack on In­ter­net free­dom.

Some have ex­pressed con­cern that giv­ing up that lever­age could al­low au­thor­it­ari­an gov­ern­ments or the United Na­tions to pres­sure IC­ANN to cen­sor on­line con­tent. For ex­ample, Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn, a Ten­ness­ee Re­pub­lic­an, called the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s an­nounce­ment a “hos­tile step” against free speech.

“Giv­ing up con­trol of IC­ANN will al­low coun­tries like China and Rus­sia that don’t place the same value in free­dom of speech to bet­ter define how the In­ter­net looks and op­er­ates,” she said in a state­ment on Monday.

The House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on the plan next month and has prom­ised “ag­gress­ive over­sight.” In a joint state­ment, Com­mit­tee Chair­man Fred Up­ton and Tech­no­logy Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Greg Walden said that any changes to In­ter­net gov­ernance should “be ap­proached with a cau­tious and care­ful eye.”

But Strick­ling noted that the Na­tion­al Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions and In­form­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, a Com­merce De­part­ment agency that he heads, will need to sign off on IC­ANN’s pro­pos­al for man­aging the In­ter­net ad­dress sys­tem.

“We have been clear throughout this pro­cess that any trans­ition plan must meet the con­di­tions of sup­port­ing the multistake­hold­er pro­cess and pro­tect­ing the se­cur­ity, sta­bil­ity and re­si­li­ency of the In­ter­net,” Strick­ling said. “I have em­phas­ized that we will not ac­cept a pro­pos­al that re­places NTIA’s role with a gov­ern­ment-led or an in­ter­gov­ern­ment­al solu­tion. Un­til the com­munity comes to­geth­er on a pro­pos­al that meets these con­di­tions, we will con­tin­ue to per­form our cur­rent stew­ard­ship role.”

Strick­ling also poin­ted to sup­port­ive state­ments from Demo­crats in­clud­ing Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jay Rock­e­feller and Rep. Anna Eshoo, as well as Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Marco Ru­bio and John Thune. AT&T, Ve­r­i­zon, Cisco, Mi­crosoft, and Google have also en­dorsed the move.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has long sup­por­ted the “multistake­hold­er” mod­el for In­ter­net gov­ernance in which busi­nesses, ad­vocacy groups, and gov­ern­ments come to­geth­er to make de­cisions. But be­cause the In­ter­net was in­ven­ted in the United States, this coun­try has his­tor­ic­ally had a cent­ral role in its man­age­ment. As the In­ter­net has grown, oth­er coun­tries have de­man­ded a great­er voice in de­cision-mak­ing. Ed­ward Snowden’s leaks about U.S. sur­veil­lance have only in­tens­i­fied the in­ter­na­tion­al pres­sure on the United States to re­lin­quish its power.

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