(CNSNews.com) – A federal agency on Thursday moved the U.S. closer to relinquishing oversight of the Internet’s domain name system, prompting some Republican critics to warn that doing so could allow authoritarian governments to “try to undermine the new system of Internet governance and thereby threaten free speech around the world.”
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin also accused the administration of violating federal law by spending money on preparations towards the transition plan despite congressional funding prohibitions.
The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said Thursday that a proposal to shift control of the domain name system (DNS) away from the U.S. government meets criteria it laid down in March 2014.
Since the late 1990s, a not-for-profit body called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has been responsible for overseeing Web domains and assigning protocol addresses – the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions.
NTIA has stewardship of ICANN, but in 2014 the administration announced that when NTIA’s contract expires in September it plans to relinquish that role.
Supporters say the system has worked, and that despite formal NTIA oversight it has been largely free of U.S. government interference. But governments of countries such as China and Russia have long objected to what they view as unacceptable U.S. control, and would like to wield more control themselves, conceivably through the U.N.
A key criterion set by the administration for the change is that NTIA’s role may not be replaced by one that is led by governments or intergovernmental organizations.
Instead it must enhance the so-called “multi-stakeholder” model, involving all private and public sector users, including businesses and academia.
NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling said in a statement Thursday that a proposal developed by “the Internet’s multi-stakeholder community” meets the criteria.
“The plan developed by the community will strengthen the multi-stakeholder approach that has helped the Internet to grow and thrive, while maintaining the stability, security, and openness that users across the globe depend on today,” he said.
“Most important, the plan does not replace NTIA’s role with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution,” the statement said.
Critics are leery, however.
“This is the latest step in a troubling series of steps that the administration has taken to relinquish its responsibilities, and it should send a concerning message to every American,” the four GOP lawmakers said.
“If the United States relinquishes its supervision of the Internet – which it has nurtured from inception to become the greatest source of information in human history – authoritarian regimes could try to undermine the new system of Internet governance and thereby threaten free speech around the world.”
‘Reckless and absurd’
On Wednesday, Cruz and Duffy introduced the Protecting Internet Freedom Act, which would prohibit the government from allowing the IANA functions contract to expire without congressional authorization.
“The Obama administration is months away from deciding whether the United States government will continue to provide oversight over core functions of the Internet and protect it from authoritarian regimes that view the Internet as a way to increase their influence and suppress freedom of speech,” said Cruz.
Duffy said the president “wants to hand over the keys to the Internet to countries like China and Russia.”
“This is reckless and absurd. The governments of these countries do not value free speech. In fact, they censor the Internet and routinely repress and punish political dissidents,” he said.
In a fact sheet Thursday, the NTIA disputed the claim that foreign governments could “take over the Internet.”
“Under the transition proposal, there is nothing that increases the role of governments over the DNS or ICANN as an organization,” it said, adding that government officials are prohibited from serving as voting members of the board.
Governments already have an advisory role through something called the governmental advisory committee (GAC), but the board is free – both now and under the future proposal – to reject GAC advice, it said.
Still, the Protecting Internet Freedom Act is drawing support from a range of conservative and tech groups, including Heritage Action, Americans for Tax Reform, American Center for Law and Justice, Frontiers of Freedom, TechFreedom, Protect Internet Freedom and International Center for Law & Economics.
Frontiers of Freedom president George Landrith said in a statement proponents of the changes have not demonstrated “how an ICANN independent of the United States and our Constitution will remain independent of the Chinese, Russians, North Koreans, Iranians and others around the globe who are unfriendly to democratic values and have used violence to silence their political opposition.”
“As long as the Internet is accountable to the American public through its government and bound by the U.S. Constitution, the Internet will continue to be a modern miracle of freedom,” Landrith said.