Republicans on a Senate committee charged with overseeing Internet policy pressed for a delay Tuesday to the government’s planned hand-off of the Internet’s domain name authority to the international community — a move some likened to the Federal Communications Commission’s divisive net neutrality rules.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee heard testimony from experts, stakeholders and witnesses directly involved in the Commerce Department’s plan to transition oversight of the Domain Name System (DNS) to a global multi-stakeholder community model — a move some described as necessary to ensure Internet openness.
“Over 18 years and three administrations, the U.S. government has used light-touch oversight over ICANN [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers],” Steve DelBianco, executive director of online business association NetChoice and policy chair for ICANN’s Business Constituency told the committee.
Housed within ICANN is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which maintains the roadmap of the Internet by assigning Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to direct Internet-connected devices to websites. The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has overseen ICANN’s DNS operations since the broad deployment of the Internet in the 1990s.
“It is neither sustainable nor necessary for the U.S. to retain its unique role forever,” DelBianco said. “In fact, retaining this unique role increases the risk of Internet fragmentation and government overreach.”
Since the Obama administration announced its plan to transition the U.S.’s sole oversight of the Internet’s backbone to the global community in 2014, supporters — in an effort to convince Republicans — have described it as the best way to reduce Internet regulation.
“We’ve heard today that successful transition means maintaining an Internet free from government control, that and Internet tamed by government is bad for Internet users and the overall global economy,” Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines said. “This government-involved model that we are trying to avoid sounds a bit like the FCC’s net neutrality rules.”
DelBianco said that while other governments can control the Internet within their borders, it’s up to the U.S. to lead by example in demonstrating how a neutral Internet should function.
“I don’t think that the parallel would work here because ICANN can do nothing to influence the content censorship that happens within a country’s borders,” he continued. “ICANN has nothing to do with that on purpose.”
Democrats agreed the goal of the transition and net neutrality align.
“Last year, as you know, the FCC established the Open Internet Order to protect and promote the open Internet in the United States,” Connecticut Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. “The global Internet should similarly be free and open, and to that end, the United States has a responsibility to lead by example.”
Blumenthal added it was important “to remove any perception, real or imaginary, that the U.S. government is somehow controlling the Internet.”
Though unrelated from a technical standpoint, lawmakers and witnesses agreed the transition was announced as a concession to the international community after the leak of global National Security Agency surveillance programs by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Democrats and witnesses backing the handoff said globalization made the transition inevitable, and warned any further delay in adopting the plan would signal a lack of sincerity on the part of the U.S. to the international community, and give other countries and the United Nations an excuse to try and exercise their own control over the Internet.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said that while a transition is inevitable, extending the timeline beyond the Sept. 30 expiration of NTIA’s current contract with ICANN doesn’t mean “the world is going to rebel.”
Rubio said as recently as this May 2016, NTIA reported China issued draft measures “that would require all Internet domain names in China to be registered through government-licensed service providers that have established a domestic presence in the country and would impose additional stringent regulations on the provision of domain services.”
NTIA said the regulations “would contravene policies that have been established already at the global level by all Internet stakeholders, including the Chinese.”
“I don’t care how fast this moves or what we do, China is going to try to take over at least as much as they can, because it’s a threat to their government control of their society,” Rubio said.
Republicans have expressed similar concerns with regard to Russia and other authoritarian regimes attempting to assert control once oversight is out of U.S. government hands.
Rubio and others have sent letters to ICANN and NTIA asking for a delay in the transition to a plan approved by the international community until it undergoes stress testing.
The House Appropriations Committee is working to advance a bill stalling the transition into 2017.