A U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration plan to end its formal relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers could open the door to Internet censorship by China, Russia or Iran, some U.S. lawmakers said.
The NTIA's plan to end its 16-year oversight of ICANN could embolden those countries to seek greater control of the Internet domain name system, several Republican members of a U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee said during a hearing Wednesday.
Representative Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, questioned whether the NTIA plan, announced last month, contains assurances against an ICANN takeover by countries that want to censor the Internet. "Russia and China have made it very clear they want to suppress freedom," he said. "Russia and China have proven to be very resourceful in trying to figure out what that process is so they can manipulate it."
Under the NTIA's plan, the agency contract with ICANN to operate key domain-name functions would be allowed to expire, if the Internet community comes up with an acceptable alternative. The NTIA will not accept a transition proposal from ICANN that has government control "as its outcome," agency administrator Lawrence Strickling said. "Period. End of story, so it won't happen."
Some countries have been trying to influence ICANN's process for years without success, added Fadi Chehadé, ICANN's president and CEO. ICANN's community has not allowed that to happen, he said.
"No one has yet explained to me the mechanism by which any of these individual governments could somehow seize control of the Internet as a whole," Strickling added.
Still, some lawmakers questioned why the NTIA needs to end its contract with ICANN for the organization to operate the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions. "What's so wrong with the current system that we want to change it?" said Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican.
The NTIA proposal would make good on a long-time promise to transfer ICANN oversight to the Internet community, Chehadé said. In addition, the plan would take away a perception in some parts of the world that the U.S. government controls Internet governance, even though the NTIA role is largely symbolic at this point, he said.
The change "sends the right message to the world" that the U.S. government trusts a multistakeholder model of governance by the Internet community, he said.
Some Republicans called for the NTIA and ICANN to slow down the process. One possible date for a transition would be in September 2015, when the NTIA's IANA contract with ICANN expires, Strickling said.
Last Thursday, three Republicans introduced a bill, called the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act, calling for a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on the potential impact before the transition happens.
"In the month of March alone we've seen Russia block opposition websites, Turkey ban Twitter, China place new restrictions on online video, and a top Malaysian politician pledge to censor the Internet if he's given the chance," Representative John Shimkus of Illinois, the chief sponsor, said then. "This isn't a theoretical debate. There are real authoritarian governments in the world today who have no tolerance for the free flow of information and ideas."
ICANN and the NTIA have no set deadline for the transition, Chehadé said. "It's more important to get it right than to rush it," he added.
Steve DelBianco, executive director of e-commerce trade group NetChoice, urged lawmakers and the ICANN community to consider a range of potential scenarios, including ICANN relocating its headquarters outside of the U.S. and ICANN becoming financially insolvent, after NTIA ends its oversight.
DelBianco also described a scenario in which a majority of ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee moves to suspend a top-level domain that refuses to remove websites critical of governments. The U.S. government now provides a critical backstop for ICANN to ensure against major problems, DelBianco said.
"It can be uncomfortable to imagine a scenario where a future ICANN fails dramatically or is confronted with a serious threat," he said. "But we should consider challenging scenarios and develop mechanisms that could resolve those challenges in a way that's at least as effective as the mechanism we have today."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.