Rubio Wants to Delay Transition of Internet Governance

Rubio defeated Beruff easily. (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is among the GOP lawmakers leading the charge to delay the transition of a powerful body that governs internet domain names away from U.S. control.

He is doing so despite warning from officials who have put the transition in place. They say it’s essential to make good on the promise to hand over the internet domain name reins. If not, the United States risks foreign nations seizing internet control on their own.

But Rubio, the former 2016 Republican presidential candidate said Tuesday he will send a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department, to seek a delay in moving that governing body away from American control. He wants to keep the domain name entity under U.S. control until it’s clear everything in the transition plan is working.

“Before any plan can be implemented, we ensure that changes in the transition proposal are applied, that they operate as envisioned, and they don’t contain unforeseen problems that could undermine the multi-stakeholder model or that threaten the openness, security, stability the resiliency of the internet,” Rubio said in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the transition. “So I plan to communicate this formally to the administration in a letter later today,… making sure that we’re not the ones who get this wrong.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) will join Rubio on the letter, according to a Senate aide.

The Internet Assigned Number Authority, or IANA, controls the domain names used by internet service providers to traffic data and drive the internet. The department rests within a loosely configured international nonprofit that oversees the internet’s network stability called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. The Commerce Department holds a contract to run IANA.

Since 2014, the global internet community has worked to develop a plan to privatize IANA and shift the control from the United States government to a new body with stakeholders from all over the world. The idea is part of a growing belief that the internet should not be overly influenced or controlled by any one country.

Two years of work has resulted in a plan that enjoys nearly unanimous support within the global internet community. It will transition IANA from American control to a new multi-stakeholder approach in which no one individual, entity or country would have excessive power.

The plan was forwarded to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on March 10, and the agency set a target date of June 10 to determine whether it satisfies all their requirements. NTIA’s contract to run IANA expires on Sep. 30 of this year.

Rubio’s prime complaint with the transition proposal is the cramped time frame. He is emerging as the head of a cohort of Republicans who don’t like the idea of the shift in power happening without the time to ensure the process is solid.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) is sympathetic to that concern. He said at the hearing that delaying on transitioning IANA away from U.S. control for two more years to flesh out the systems “doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable proposal.”

That proposal came from one of the panelists, Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation.

Thune’s office did not respond to immediate request for comment on whether he will join Rubio’s letter to NTIA.

Rubio said he understands the global community’s desire for a greater stake in what is now “a global common.”

“I don’t dispute that or dismiss it offhand,” Rubio said. “What I do dismiss, however, is this notion that if we somehow don’t do it on this accelerated time frame then the world is going to rebel and say, ‘You were lying to us the whole time you never intended to give this up,’ and that this is somehow going to give an excuse for example China or Russia to argue to the world that’s why we need our internet regulatory framework apart from the United States because this stuff doesn’t work anymore.”

Rubio’s comments came after various witnesses who were involved in the negotiations told lawmakers that delaying the proposal would send a damaging message to the worldwide community that the U.S. doesn’t take the issue seriously. That, in turn, could encourage the United Nations to step in or for foreign nations to seize control over the internet themselves.

David Gross, formerly U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department under the George W. Bush administration who has worked on the transition, told the committee that delaying the move would be “a tremendous failure for all of us” because it would undermine the American position of internet openness.

“It will signal very, very clearly that the United States has changed its position,” Gross said. “That the United States no longer believes firmly in the multi-stakeholder, private sector-led internet, but rather believes the government and governments, therefore, play the primary role of making final decisions. Russia, China and others will welcome such a decision.”

Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, was part of the discussions regarding the shift of IANA power. He said that a delay would be “a direct slap in the face to a community that has worked for two years on this proposal.” He added that it would send the message that the U.S. is “not serious” about the proposal.

Jamie Hedlund, vice president of strategic programs at the overlying internet governing power ICANN said in a separate statement Tuesday that “delaying the IANA stewardship transition indefinitely is no different than simply blocking it.” He argued that keeping the U.S. government in charge would risk a fragmented domain name system worldwide.

Regardeless of these protests, several Republicans have expressed concerns about the transition, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also expressed concern at the hearing regarding security of American-owned internet domains if things move too quickly.

Johnson’s point is that it’s not necessary to change anything. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Johnson said. “Can you point to something that is broken right now? Where has America not been a good steward of the internet? We’ve extended this contract four times – did a disaster occur?”