Internet Governance Transition Meets GOP Opposition

U.S. Commerce Department. John Sonderman/

Republicans will continue to oppose the U.S. government’s plan to cede its control over a major internet governance body as the Sept. 30 transition date nears.

GOP lawmakers are pressuring the government to stop its transition activities, citing provisions in a current government funding law that prohibit the Commerce Department from spending money to relinquish control of the body of that governs the internet domain-naming system.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration has held a contract for 18 years to run the department, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.

In August, NTIA announced that the agency would cede control of IANA when its contract runs out on Sept. 30, “barring any significant impediment.” An international nonprofit will take over.

Congress could be the impediment to that plan. With the main focus of lawmakers this month on passing stopgap legislation to fund the government, moving forward on the IANA transition could prove damaging for the administration among Republicans who dictate the size of the agency’s budget.

The issue is particularly bothersome for House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson, whose panel is tasked with funding the Commerce Department.

It was Culberson’s subcommittee that initiated the current appropriations language denying funds for the agency to “relinquish responsibility” of NTIA “with respect to internet domain name system functions” during fiscal year 2016.

If Congress were to extend government funding past Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year expires, the rider would still be active. The language is also part of the 2017 appropriations bill for the Commerce Department.

Agency officials say they are abiding by the law, spending no money on the transition.

But if the Commerce Department goes forward, it could negatively affect the agency’s relationship with the chairman, the Texas Republican hinted. “I intend to enforce the prohibition in my bill by using every legislative tool available to me, including objecting to Department of Commerce requests to move around money,” Culberson said in a statement to Morning Consult.

Culberson wrote to Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker in June saying he “vehemently” opposes the transition “that could greatly threaten internet freedom,” adding he would make sure his prohibitive appropriations riders are “fully enforced.”

There could be a partisan fight if Culberson continues his campaign. The top Democrat on Culberson’s subcommittee, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), is “supportive of the transition process to permanently shift the administration of certain Internet domain name system functions to ICANN.”

ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is an international nonprofit located in California that oversees the network stability of the internet.

The transition “will ensure that the Internet’s technical functions remain free and independent of special interest pressures for years to come allowing the internet to continue to grow and thrive without pressures from governments or foreign entities,” Honda said in a statement to Morning Consult.

“I have long championed this model and fought against efforts to undercut and prevent this transition,” he added.

The plan to cede control of IANA to a multi-stakeholder international body comes after two years of work between the U.S. government and the internet community. The goal has been to move toward a privatized approach of internet governance and prohibit any one country from having excessive influence over the internet’s functions.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been leading the opposition to the IANA transition in the Senate. He introduced the Protecting Internet Freedom Act, a measure that would bar NTIA from allowing the IANA contract to expire unless authorized by Congress. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) introduced companion legislation in the House.

Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tom Cotton of Arkansas co-sponsor the Senate measure. Culberson is among 14 Republican co-sponsors of the House bill, along with Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Joe Barton of Texas.

Morning Consult