Fears about ICANN transition are overstated, US agency chief says

Concerns the transition away from U.S. government oversight will lead to censorship misunderstand the role of ICANN, the NTIA's administrator says

Concerns that the U.S. government's plan to end its oversight of the internet's domain name coordinating body would lead to new web censorship efforts are unfounded because of the current contract's limited scope, according to a top U.S. administration official.

Critics fear that the end of the U.S. government's oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) would embolden other countries to censor the internet. But neither ICANN nor the U.S. government has the authority to stop censorship in other countries now, said Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The NTIA's contract with ICANN to oversee the global coordination of the DNS Root and IP addressing -- scheduled to expire at the end of the month -- "is too limited in scope to be a tool for protecting internet freedom," Strickling told a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Instead, if the NTIA fails to move forward with its planned transition away from ICANN oversight, repressive countries may point to U.S. control as evidence that a new governmental body is needed to control the organization, Strickling said. An extension of the contract "could actually lead to the loss of internet freedom we want to maintain," he said.

The NTIA has proposed to end its oversight of ICANN as a way to discourage other countries from pushing for new government control over the internet.

Republican committee members, led by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, blasted President Barack Obama's administration for the planned transition. Cruz has suggested that the transition amounts to the U.S. giving away the internet, although ICANN's authority is limited to administering the domain name system.

U.S. free speech protections, combined with the ICANN contract, gives its government the authority to protect websites against censorship, Cruz said. "Since the internet's inception, the United States government has stood guard over critical internet functions," he added. "Under the guardianship of the United States and the First Amendment the internet has become truly an oasis of freedom, but that could soon change."

Without NTIA oversight, ICANN could move its headquarters outside of the U.S. and change its bylaws to be more friendly to foreign influence, Cruz said.

The transition may be an illegal relinquishment of government property without congressional approval, added Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican. But earlier this week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued an opinion saying the internet domain name system is unlikely to be government property.

Republican concerns are misguided, said Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat. The transition would remove the NTIA's role in an "essentially clerical process," he said. 

The transition "is not, as some have suggested, the United States giving up ownership of the internet," Coons added. "The United States does not own the internet."

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