An alliance of technology organizations and conservatives are urging Congress to file suit against the Obama administration to block the transference of control over Internet domain names to an international board. The alliance claims that doing so will give authoritarian regimes power to decide who can and cannot have a presence on the web, Fox News reported Saturday.
Since 1998, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department called the National Telecommunications Information Administration, or NTIA, has issued domain names. But in September the Obama administration is set to allow the U.S. government’s contract to lapse so that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will then be operated by a global board of directors, and the responsibility will fall to it instead.
Critics of the administration’s decision fear that it will allow Russia, China and Iran to then have a stake in governing the Internet, giving them “de facto” power to tax domain names and quash free speech.
Twice Congress has included riders in appropriations legislation to expressly prohibit U.S. tax dollars from being spent on the transition, which President Obama has signed into law. So, if the White House goes forward and allows the contract to lapse next month it would be yet another potentially unconstitutional action by this president.
And that is what the coalition of tech groups fully expects, which is why it is pressing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and other congressional leaders to support a lawsuit similar to action the House took against the administration regarding unauthorized spending on Obamacare in 2014.
“Suing to enforce the appropriations rider and extending it through FY2017 are amply justified by the extraordinary importance of the constitutional principle at stake,” the coalition letter says.
In addition, the letter states that the administration has not guaranteed the United States will maintain ownership of the domain names .mil or .gov, for military and government websites respectively.
“Without robust safeguards, Internet governance could fall under the sway of governments hostile to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment,” the letter says. “Ominously, governments will gain a formal voting role in ICANN for the first time when the new bylaws are implemented.”
What’s more, there is concern that ICANN is no longer an impartial entity. The letter noted that the organization has already transformed from a technical coordination agency established in 1998 to something more resembling an actual governing body, in that it now has de facto authority to apply a tax to some domain names. It added that there are a number of reasons to be concerned about what ICANN may do with that power next if the incentive for self-restraint created by the contract it has with the U.S. is removed.
The groups contend that the administration would be in violation of the law if it moves forward with the transition. But officials with the NTIA say that’s not the case.
NTIA spokeswoman Juliana Grunewald told Fox News in an interview that current laws prohibit the agency from utilizing taxpayer funds to “relinquish the responsibility” over the Internet in the current 2016 fiscal year. This is due to the way that it pertains to Internet domain name functions. But, she noted further, the law does not ban NTIA from analyzing transition proposals or undertaking additional activities in preparation for a transition. Grunewald said that, in fact, Congress has directed her agency to make a thorough examination of any transition plan that may be proposed, and to then provide lawmakers with updates on said transition every quarter, “which we have done.”
That said, the coalition of groups obviously believes that the Obama administration has already made its decision and will pursue handing over control of the Internet anyway it can. Once control is gone, the U.S. will likely never get it back.