House Panel Votes to Halt Obama’s Internet Power Transfer

Republicans worry Russia or China could seize control of the Internet.

 Ethernet cables lead to a server at the Rittal stand at the 2013 CeBIT technology trade fair the day before the fair opens to visitors on March 4, 2013 in Hanover, Germany.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
April 10, 2014, 7:27 a.m.

A House pan­el voted along party lines on Thursday to delay the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to give up over­sight over cer­tain tech­nic­al In­ter­net man­age­ment func­tions.

Re­pub­lic­ans are wor­ried that the pro­pos­al, which would trans­fer power to an in­ter­na­tion­al non­profit group, could open the door to an In­ter­net takeover by au­thor­it­ari­an re­gimes.

The Re­pub­lic­ans on the House Com­mu­nic­a­tions and Tech­no­logy Sub­com­mit­tee over­rode vo­cal Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion to ad­vance the DOT­COM Act, which would in­struct the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice to in­vest­ig­ate the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan. The bill would block the trans­fer of In­ter­net powers for up to a year while the of­fice pre­pares a re­port.

The bill now heads to the full En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee for con­sid­er­a­tion.

Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Greg Walden, an Ore­gon Re­pub­lic­an, ar­gued that giv­en the “mag­nitude” of the is­sue, the United States should care­fully study the pro­pos­al be­fore mov­ing for­ward.

“We should at least pause long enough to have an in­de­pend­ent non­par­tis­an body we all re­spect look over whatever [the ad­min­is­tra­tion] comes back with and say, ‘What ef­fect does it have?’ ” Walden said.

He warned that if the U.S. gives up its role over­see­ing In­ter­net ad­dress func­tions, that could al­low Rus­sia or China to seize power.

“We know what China has done to si­lence dis­sent, and we’ve read the state­ments of Vladi­mir Putin, who wants to use the powers of the [In­ter­na­tion­al Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions Uni­on] to con­trol the In­ter­net,” Walden said. “These threats are real.”

But Demo­crats ac­cused Re­pub­lic­ans of be­ing para­noid, and ar­gued that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan would only con­tin­ue the long­time po­s­i­tion of the U.S. gov­ern­ment to sup­port the “multi-stake­hold­er” mod­el of In­ter­net gov­ernance, in which power rests with private com­pan­ies, non­profit groups, aca­dem­ics, en­gin­eers, and oth­ers.

“There is no plan to turn the In­ter­net over to rogue gov­ern­ments. The plan is to stick with the plan,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, the sub­com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, said. “It is not a con­spir­acy or a di­git­al black heli­copter.”

Last month, the Com­merce De­part­ment an­nounced it will give the In­ter­net Cor­por­a­tion for As­signed Names and Num­bers, an in­ter­na­tion­al non­profit group, con­trol over a set of tech­nic­al pro­ced­ures that al­lows 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.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say they won’t end the con­tract un­til IC­ANN pro­duces a cred­ible plan for how it will man­age the In­ter­net func­tions go­ing for­ward, and that any plan that would give power to oth­er gov­ern­ments would be dead-on-ar­rival.

At Thursday’s sub­com­mit­tee vote, Demo­crats said they are not op­posed to hav­ing the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice, Con­gress’s audit arm, study the is­sue. But they warned that the Re­pub­lic­an bill would tie the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hands and de­rail the trans­fer of In­ter­net over­sight au­thor­ity.

Eshoo ar­gued that the Re­pub­lic­ans are vi­ol­at­ing le­gis­la­tion that the House un­an­im­ously passed last year, en­dors­ing the multi-stake­hold­er mod­el of In­ter­net gov­ernance.

“I sug­gest mem­bers go back and read what they voted for,” she said. “You are un­rav­el­ing what you voted for.” 

She said the DOT­COM Act (which she called the “Dot Con Act”) is a “source of em­bar­rass­ment to a com­mit­tee that has mostly ac­ted in a bi­par­tis­an way.”

Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Demo­crat, ar­gued that re­lin­quish­ing over­sight of the In­ter­net ad­dress func­tions will ac­tu­ally help to bol­ster In­ter­net free­dom. He said coun­tries such as Rus­sia and China point to the unique U.S. role as evid­ence that the United States doesn’t ac­tu­ally sup­port private-sec­tor con­trol of the In­ter­net. Those au­thor­it­ari­an re­gimes use that ar­gu­ment when they push the United Na­tions and oth­er in­ter­na­tion­al bod­ies to give them more in­flu­ence over the In­ter­net, Doyle said.

Walden said he would be open to short­en­ing the delay from one year to six months, but that Con­gress should be able to fully re­view the trans­fer be­fore it oc­curs.

“The whole pur­pose here is to have the in­form­a­tion be­fore the ad­min­is­tra­tion takes its ac­tion,” he said.

Re­pub­lic­ans re­jec­ted four amend­ments from Demo­crats that would have scaled back the bill.

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