US Internet Handoff Generates Sparks in Congress

The U.S. government has played a central — perhaps critical — role in the development of the Internet. Currently the U.S. retains a stewardship position in the worldwide operation of the Internet through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department.

That stewardship is slated to end, however, with NTIA proposing to relinquish its presence in the operation of the Internet to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, a multistakeholder group of network players. NTIA proposed the transition to ICANN in March 2014, but the proposal has generated controversy within the e-commerce community at large and, especially, in the U.S. Congress.

In fact, the proposal is still so troubling to many members of the House of Representatives that earlier this month, a House funding committee voted to prohibit NTIA from using 2016 budget funds to implement the ICANN handoff.

The Internet transfer represented a “significant policy change” that needed to be “considered more fully by the Congress,” read the committee’s report.

“The Obama administration’s proposal to transition its stewardship in overseeing the management of the Internet away from the U.S. and to an international body has kicked off high-profile debates involving many far-reaching questions that relate to the future security, stability, resiliency and integrity of the global Internet’s continued operation,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., in praise of the decision.

However, just this week the Internet subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters Act, or DOTCOM Act, which would allow the transition to go forward provided certain requirements are met to ensure global Internet openness.

Additionally, its provisions aim to help ICANN avoid takeover by other governments or organizations, and to make ICANN more accountable.

Administration: US Exit Is Overdue

No one wants the Internet to fail. The national security, critical infrastructure, and commercial business impacts of even a temporarily compromised system are too staggering to contemplate — not to mention fears that a change could lead to creation of a networking system characterized by international and commercial rivalries, reliability problems, and a kind of electronic mercantilism.

For some, the exit of the U.S. from a development role in the operation of the Internet is long overdue. As an early technical and financial supporter of the Internet through the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation, the U.S. became the host entity for administration of the system. That function involved the naming and addressing elements essential to Internet messaging, including a related root zone capability as the base of a hierarchical electronic structure.

The U.S. performs that function under a contract between NTIA and ICANN, which was entered expressly for the purpose of operating the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA. By terminating that contract, as proposed, NTIA would relinquish any oversight leverage it now has over Internet operations.

The NTIA was ready to do that more than two years ago, when it proposed the handoff.

“We believe the timing is right for this transition, and a broad group of stakeholders — both domestically and internationally — have expressed their support and cooperation in this process,” administrator Lawrence Strickling said.

ICANN had matured as an organization and had taken steps to improve its accountability, transparency and technical competence, according to NTIA. International support for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance was growing, evidenced by the success of the Internet Governance Forum, as well as stewardship provided by other Internet institutions.

Momentum for Change

To some degree, the U.S. became a victim of own success. The empowering nature of the Internet inevitably led to pressure from other countries to demand an end to its dominant presence.

A contributing factor was the 2013 breach of National Security Agency information by NSA contract employee Edward Snowden, which fostered mistrust. Complaints about the U.S.’ Internet role gained traction, even though they were largely misplaced.

The U.S. involvement, which is centered on the IANA root zone component, “has nothing to do with online surveillance by the NSA or any other national intelligence agency, whether U.S. or foreign,” said Philip Corwin, counsel to the Internet Commerce Association, at a House committee hearing last month.

The current U.S. role in the Internet “affords the NSA no advantage, nor will its relinquishment result in any disadvantage in conducting whatever online monitoring it may lawfully engage in,” he said.

Nonetheless, ICANN’s board and others cited the NSA breach in pressing for the NTIA handoff, Corwin noted. The confluence of the NSA incident, international resistance to the dominance of the U.S., and the long-held vision for an eventual transition has provided the momentum for ending NTIA’s role.

“The consensus view of our members is that [the Internet] wasn’t broke and didn’t need to be fixed — but they also recognize that the toothpaste is out of the tube, and that the responsible thing to do is to push for strong accountability mechanisms to replace the U.S. role,” Corwin told the E-Commerce Times.

“It’s just not sustainable for the U.S. to keep its unique oversight role, especially after Snowden’s revelations inflamed feelings of techno-nationalism in some countries, observed Steve DelBianco, executive director at NetChoice.

“This transition is the best opportunity to pursue difficult and controversial changes to ensure that ICANN is accountable to the entire community it was created to serve,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Key Internet players such as AT&T, Microsoft, Cisco and Verizon, among many others, have strongly supported the full transition to the ICANN multistakeholder arrangement.

Not So Fast

The Obama proposal has been challenged, especially by groups worried that absent U.S. stewardship, the Internet could become vulnerable to undue influence by countries or international organizations seeking to compromise its free and open operation.

“Turning the system over to what is being called ‘the global multistakeholder community’ means in reality that countries that spend much of their time trying to censor the Internet, such as Russia and China, will have increasing influence on how the system is run,” wrote Larry Hart, director of government relations at the American Conservative Union, in a letter sent to Congress last month.

ICANN responded to skeptics with the release last month of a draft governance and accountability proposal; its public comment period ended last week. The document suggested the adoption of numerous measures dealing with its by-laws, board of directors, and stakeholder powers that would insulate it from the vulnerabilities raising concerns. ICANN also drafted suggestions for improving technical elements of its operation, and the tie-in of technical matters with governance issues.

“Since the U.S. government announced its intention to transition the stewardship of these important Internet technical functions last year, there has been concern expressed by some that such a transition opens the door to capture by certain governments. The international multistakeholder community is hard at work to assure that the developing transition proposal would embrace a system that effectively renders such a capture as impossible,” ICANN said in statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by spokesperson Brad White.

“Maintaining the current structure could possibly lead to a fragmentation of the Internet by governments that have long grown weary of the United States’ sole stewardship role. That means there is far more risk posed to the Internet by maintaining the status quo, than by engaging in a thoughtful and inclusive path forward,” ICANN said.

NTIA, in fact, has insisted that ICANN implement safeguards enhancing the organization’s independence before the U.S. actually relinquishes its stewardship role.

The current state of play is that ICANN will complete its governance and technical proposals for approval by its stakeholders, the NTIA, and likely the U.S. Congress. NTIA first suggested that the handoff could be completed by Sept. 30, 2015, when the current ICANN contract comes up for renewal. NTIA has two more contract extension options available and has said it would implement them to facilitate a proper handoff.

It could be mid-2016 before the transition is completed, NetChoice’s DelBianco projected in an assessment of the process.

Although it has expressed significant concerns about the transition, The Heritage Foundation is not totally opposed to the proposal and has chosen to engage in the ICANN dialogs.

“Other countries now expect the transition to occur, and resisting the transition will likely lead to a much more harmful outcome,” said Brett Schaefer, research fellow at Heritage.

“However,” he told the E-Commerce Times, “the U.S. must insist that only after an acceptable transition proposal is offered and all the necessary reforms to ICANN are adopted and in effect should the U.S. end its current arrangement.”

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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