Republicans Question Constitutionality of Obama’s Plan to Give Up Internet Authority

Is the Obama administration trying to turn over federal “property” to the international community?

Thomas Trutschel AFP/Getty
Sept. 28, 2015, 12:55 p.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to give up its role in the tech­nic­al man­age­ment of the In­ter­net could be un­con­sti­tu­tion­al, ac­cord­ing to top con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans.

The Com­merce De­part­ment an­nounced last year that it will end its au­thor­ity over the serv­ers and oth­er in­fra­struc­ture ne­ces­sary for com­puters around the world to reach web­sites. The ul­ti­mate power over the In­ter­net Cor­por­a­tion for As­signed Names and Num­bers, the non­profit group that man­ages the In­ter­net’s ad­dress func­tion, would in­stead be­long to the “glob­al stake­hold­er com­munity.”

In a let­ter re­leased Monday and dated Sept. 22, Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Rep. Dar­rell Issa ar­gued that the plan could vi­ol­ate the con­sti­tu­tion­al re­quire­ment that only Con­gress has the power to “dis­pose of … prop­erty be­long­ing to the United States.”

The Com­merce De­part­ment’s Na­tion­al Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions and In­form­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which plans to com­plete the trans­fer of au­thor­ity next year, did not re­spond to a re­quest to com­ment on the let­ter.

“If the con­tract gov­ern­ing U.S. over­sight of the In­ter­net is in­deed gov­ern­ment prop­erty, the Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ten­tion to cede con­trol to the ‘glob­al stake­hold­er com­munity’— in­clud­ing na­tions like Ir­an, Rus­sia and China that do not value free speech and in fact seek to stifle it—is in vi­ol­a­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion and should be stopped,” Cruz said in a sep­ar­ate state­ment.

In their let­ter, the Re­pub­lic­ans asked the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice to de­term­ine wheth­er the Com­merce De­part­ment’s plan would trans­fer any U.S. gov­ern­ment prop­erty to IC­ANN. The law­makers cited a GAO re­port from 2000, which had said it was “un­clear” wheth­er a trans­ition of au­thor­ity would ac­tu­ally mean a trans­fer of any phys­ic­al prop­erty. Charles Young, a spokes­man for the GAO, said the agency is re­view­ing the let­ter—a pro­cess that will likely take a few weeks.  

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has ar­gued that its plan would strengthen trust in the “multi-stake­hold­er” mod­el of In­ter­net gov­ernance, in which ul­ti­mate power rests with non­profit groups, com­pan­ies, aca­dem­ics, and en­gin­eers, rather than gov­ern­ments.

Jam­ie Hed­lund, IC­ANN’s vice pres­id­ent of stra­tegic pro­grams, said he is “con­fid­ent” that the Na­tion­al Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions and In­form­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion “pos­sesses the re­quis­ite au­thor­ity to trans­ition” its au­thor­ity over the In­ter­net’s ad­dress sys­tem to the glob­al com­munity. “In the mean­time, the IC­ANN com­munity will con­tin­ue to de­vel­op pro­pos­als to trans­ition NTIA’s stew­ard­ship role,” he said.

While some Re­pub­lic­ans warn the plan could give au­thor­it­ari­an re­gimes an op­por­tun­ity to seize power over the In­ter­net, oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans are in­stead fo­cus­ing on en­sur­ing that the trans­fer in­cludes ap­pro­pri­ate safe­guards.

The Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers of the Com­merce Com­mit­tees in both cham­bers—Sen. John Thune, Rep. Fred Up­ton, and Rep. Greg Walden—are back­ing le­gis­la­tion that would al­low the In­ter­net trans­ition to go ahead as long as Con­gress is giv­en time to re­view the de­tails of the plan. That bill, the Dot­com Act, passed the House 378-25 in June. But Cruz has been block­ing the le­gis­la­tion from reach­ing the Sen­ate floor. He ar­gues that Con­gress should have a chance to deny the trans­fer of au­thor­ity.

Aides for Thune, Up­ton, and Walden did not com­ment on the let­ter.

—This art­icle has been up­dated with com­ments from the GAO and IC­ANN.

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