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GOP Wants Review of Internet Governance Handover

The Obama administration’s plan to relinquish U.S. control of the Internet’s architecture to a group of international stakeholders isn’t going over well on Capitol Hill.

Republicans want to review any handover agreement, while members of both parties are saying the California nonprofit that manages the Internet’s addressing system needs to do a better job protecting American copyrights before President Barack Obama turns over control.

“Who’s going to be there when something goes wrong?” asked Rep. Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican, at a House Energy and Commerce hearing last week. “I’ve yet to hear this vaunted multi-stakeholder process come up with an enforcement mechanism.”

In March 2014, the Commerce Department, which manages the contract with the California group, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, said it would surrender the contract to a group of corporate executives, nonprofit Internet experts and government officials. The handover would occur in September 2015, when the current contract runs out.

Before that happens, though, the stakeholder group that would assume the contract needs to develop a transition plan and no one thinks it will be ready in time.

The fallback plan is for the Commerce Department to extend the contract until the transition plan is ready.

Republicans last week made clear they want to have a look at it before any handover. The House’s Commerce Department appropriation bill, for the second year in a row, includes a provision that would bar the department from spending any funds on the transition.

“We’ve said time and again that this is far too important to rush, and that we must carefully consider all of the consequences and outcomes before we ring a bell that cannot be unrung,” said Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology panel.

Commerce says it will require the transition plan garner wide stakeholder support, retain the multi-stakeholder governance model, and ensure the security and stability of the domain address system and the continued openness of the Internet.

But Republicans are wary of allowing foreign governments, especially those that restrict Internet access within their borders, to have a say in Internet governance. They worry that without the U.S. contract in place, foreigners could demand the Internet be placed under the control of the United Nations.

Advocates for the transition argue the current U.S. role is untenable, given the Internet’s global nature, and by allowing stakeholders that are not governments to oversee the Web, foreign governments will not be able to stake a claim.

“We’ve entered into a process that can’t be reversed,” said Brett Schafer, a witness at the Energy and Commerce hearing and a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “If we try to reverse it, the very likely outcome is not that we’re gonna have the same situation in place going forward, but the oversight of ICANN is going to be taken over by the ITU,” the United Nations’ telecommunications agency.

That point of view will likely win the day, even among Republicans. But Congress is still going to demand its say.

At a May 13 House Judiciary subcommittee hearing, for instance, both Republicans and Democrats said they’d want to see better attention to copyright protection online as a condition of the transition.

Representatives raised concerns about a new top-level domain, called “.sucks,” approved by ICANN that the panel members said was shaking down brand owners for big fees to protect their trademarks.

The domain registrar is pressuring companies to pay for “.sucks” domains so that someone else doesn’t, and create a parody site or complaint site. Thus the brand would purchase the site and retire it.

A witness for complained that ICANN had blocked its application for a “.amazon” domain name after complaints from Brazil and Peru, even though the countries have no legal right to the word.

Another witness, for the entertainment industry, said domain registrars were allowing infringement of music and movie copyrights despite ICANN rules that require them to police such activity.

“Registrars are not responding, and to date ICANN is not taking action to clarify and enforce” the rules, said Steven J. Metalitz, a counsel for the Coalition for Online Accountability.

Republicans have worried about foreign government control of the Web since the Obama administration announced the transition. But the copyright issue also troubles Democrats, many of whom represent urban districts where many copyright holders live.

The ranking Democrat on Judiciary, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, and another senior Democrat on the panel, Jerrold Nadler of New York, both indicated they’d want to see better copyright protection online before the governance handover.


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