Republicans Fear Obama Will Let Russia Seize Internet Power

The administration insists no government will gain new influence over the Internet.

A picture taken on September 17, 2013 in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, shows a room of cabling servers 'clients' at the French branch of Digital Realty, a company involved in datacenter acquisition, ownership, development and operation. Digital Realty's customers include domestic and international companies across multiple industry verticals ranging from information technology and Internet enterprises, to manufacturing and financial services.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
April 2, 2014, 2:06 p.m.

An Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion plan to give up over­sight of cer­tain tech­nic­al In­ter­net func­tions could open the door to a takeover by au­thor­it­ari­an re­gimes, Re­pub­lic­an law­makers claimed Wed­nes­day.

If Rus­sia or China gain new in­flu­ence over the man­age­ment of the In­ter­net, they could be­gin cen­sor­ing con­tent or block­ing web­sites, the Re­pub­lic­ans warned.

“Make no mis­take: Threats to the open­ness and free­dom of the In­ter­net are real,” said Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Greg Walden, the chair­man of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mu­nic­a­tions and Tech­no­logy Sub­com­mit­tee, which held a hear­ing on the is­sue Wed­nes­day. “Lead­ers such as Vladi­mir Putin have ex­pli­citly an­nounced their de­sire to gain con­trol of the In­ter­net.”

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Walden and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans are push­ing a bill that would block the trans­fer of au­thor­ity un­til the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice can study the is­sue. Dozens of Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, led by John Thune and Marco Ru­bio, sent a let­ter to the ad­min­is­tra­tion on Wed­nes­day, de­mand­ing more an­swers about the plan.

But Demo­crats at Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing in­sisted that if Re­pub­lic­ans were ser­i­ous about In­ter­net free­dom, they would sup­port the U.S. pro­pos­al. As­sist­ant Sec­ret­ary of Com­merce Larry Strick­ling said the U.S. will make sure that no for­eign gov­ern­ment will be able to seize new powers over the In­ter­net.

“No one has yet to ex­plain to me the mech­an­ism by which any of these in­di­vidu­al gov­ern­ments could some­how seize con­trol of the In­ter­net as a whole,” Strick­ling said.

“Do you really think that Vladi­mir Putin … isn’t go­ing to fig­ure out some way to get con­trol?” Rep. Steve Scal­ise, a Louisi­ana Re­pub­lic­an, shot back. “China and Rus­sia can be very re­source­ful.”

Last month, the Com­merce De­part­ment an­nounced that it will give the In­ter­net Cor­por­a­tion for As­signed Names and Num­bers (IC­ANN), an in­ter­na­tion­al non­profit group, con­trol over a set of tech­nic­al pro­ced­ures that al­low com­puters around the world to con­nect to Web ad­dresses.

Al­though the In­ter­net was in­ven­ted in the United States, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has nev­er “con­trolled” it. And IC­ANN has ac­tu­ally man­aged the In­ter­net’s ad­dress sys­tem since 1998. But IC­ANN’s au­thor­ity stems from a con­tract it re­ceives from the Na­tion­al Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions and In­form­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, a Com­merce De­part­ment agency.

By end­ing that con­tract, the U.S. will give up an “im­port­ant back­stop” that has pro­tec­ted the In­ter­net from au­thor­it­ari­an re­gimes, Walden said. If IC­ANN bowed to pres­sure from Rus­sia, China, or Ir­an, the U.S. could have al­ways pulled the group’s con­trac­tu­al au­thor­ity. Once the U.S. gives up its power, Walden warned, “there is no put­ting this genie back in the bottle.”

Rep. Joe Bar­ton, a Texas Re­pub­lic­an, said he is afraid that if the U.S. steps back, “the next gov­ern­ment that might want to do something, the Rus­si­ans or the Chinese, will not take the same at­ti­tude as the U.S. gov­ern­ment to­wards on­line free­dom.”

But House Demo­crats ar­gued that the move is just the latest step in the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s long­time sup­port of the “multi-stake­hold­er” mod­el of In­ter­net gov­ernance, in which power rests with a broad range of com­pan­ies, non­profit groups, aca­dem­ics, and oth­ers.

“It’s now time for the United States to walk the walk and demon­strate to the world that while the In­ter­net was a product of Amer­ic­an geni­us, no gov­ern­ment or in­ter­gov­ern­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tion should con­trol its fu­ture,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, the sub­com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, said Wed­nes­day.

Rep. Henry Wax­man, the top Demo­crat on the full En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, ar­gued that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan is in line with a res­ol­u­tion that Con­gress un­an­im­ously passed in 2012, an­noun­cing sup­port for an In­ter­net free from gov­ern­ment con­trol.

Strick­ling prom­ised that the U.S. gov­ern­ment will not give up its au­thor­ity over IC­ANN un­til the non­profit group pro­duces a cred­ible plan for how it will man­age the In­ter­net’s ad­dress func­tions go­ing for­ward. Any plan that would give au­thor­ity to oth­er gov­ern­ments or in­ter­gov­ern­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tions would be a non­starter, he said.

He ar­gued that the trans­ition will ac­tu­ally build trust in the multi-stake­hold­er mod­el, which will help to un­der­mine any for­eign at­tempts to gain In­ter­net power through the United Na­tions or oth­er av­en­ues.

“Tak­ing this ac­tion is the best meas­ure to pre­vent au­thor­it­ari­an re­gimes from ex­pand­ing their re­strict­ive policies bey­ond their own bor­ders,” Strick­ling said.

Fadi Chehadé, the pres­id­ent and CEO of IC­ANN, vowed to de­fend In­ter­net free­dom from at­tacks by oth­er gov­ern­ments and urged law­makers to trust in the multi-stake­hold­er mod­el.

“At the heart of this pro­pos­al is the com­mit­ment to se­cur­ity, sta­bil­ity, and re­si­li­ency. That is our No. 1 job,” he said.

A range of com­pan­ies and civil-liber­ties groups have en­dorsed the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan. Most re­cently, the In­ter­net As­so­ci­ation, a lob­by­ing group that in­cludes Google, Face­book, and Ya­hoo, sent a let­ter to House law­makers sup­port­ing the pro­pos­al.

The trans­fer of au­thor­ity is set to take place in Oc­to­ber 2015. 

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