The GOP Turnabout on the Internet Transition

Squabble over plan to relinquish U.S. oversight role

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., sponsored a plan that would have given lawmakers 30 legislative days to review any internet transition deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(First published in CQ News on Sept. 22, 2016.)

Some of the top Republican lawmakers who pushed to delay a long-planned transition of internet oversight, which will give an international group of stakeholders control over the web’s address system, weren’t always so wary of the hand-over.

The chairmen of the Commerce committees, John Thune of South Dakota and Fred Upton of Michigan, are among those raising questions about the handoff — a Commerce Department agency currently oversees the address system — even though they previously supported a bill that would have given Congress time to review the transition agreement, but not require lawmakers’ approval. The measures were never signed into law, but the Commerce Department agency responsible for the transition gave lawmakers time to review the deal anyway.

The squabble comes over a National Telecommunications and Information Administration plan to relinquish its internet oversight role at the end of this month. The agency holds a contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a private nonprofit group that runs the domain name system, which assigns web addresses. Control of that contract would go to the international group.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz argues the handoff would amount to giving away the internet to authoritarian regimes, a characterization the Obama administration and the tech industry contests. Cruz wanted to delay the transition in the stopgap spending bill pending in Congress, but GOP leaders decided not to include it.

Thune and Upton, meanwhile, signed a Sept. 8 letter to the Obama administration asking that it “reconsider” going forward with the transition.

By contrast, in June 2015, Upton was among those who voted for a bill  that would have given lawmakers 30 legislative days to review any transition deal and require confirmation from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that the plan would maintain a free and open internet. It passed the House 378-25.

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An identical Senate version by Thune breezed through the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee two days later after the panel, on a 5-19 vote, rejected a Cruz amendment that would have required that Congress approve the handoff. Afterwards, Cruz placed a hold on the bill, blocking floor action.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration delayed the transition in 2015, extending its oversight contract through this month. Extending that contract again, the agency argues, could actually result in a power grab by authoritarian regimes.

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