WASHINGTON — Today, TechFreedom and a coalition of civil society groups and experts urged Congress to protect its “Power of the Purse” and Internet freedom by temporarily blocking the IANA transition. In a coalition letter to Congressional leaders, the groups express concerns about unresolved questions regarding the Administration’s plan to “transition” away the U.S. government’s historic role as a backstop guarantor of Internet governance.
Congress has twice enacted appropriations riders that bar the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) from using taxpayer funds to “relinquish” its “responsibility” over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. The “IANA function” ties together the Internet’s domain name system, making the Internet a single, global network of networks. Both the current rider and the current IANA contract expire at the end of September. But NTIA must decide by the end of August whether to exercise its option to renew the contract. NTIA extended the contract last year, yet appears to have decided not to do so this year. The letter argues that failure to extend the contract would violate the appropriations rider.
“Congress twice told the White House to pause the Transition, yet the Commerce Department is blatantly ignoring the law,” said Berin Szóka, President of TechFreedom. “Congress cannot just let this slide. It must defend the Constitution’s separation of powers, which gives the ‘Power of the Purse’ to the House as the most democratically accountable part of the federal government. That means making clear to the Administration that the House will sue if NTIA does not extend the contract. It also means extending the rider for FY2017 so that Congress has a chance to weigh in before the Transition goes through.”
The letter — signed by ICANN’s founding chairwoman, among other people — explains why an extension is not only legally required but also essential for Internet freedom:
We agree that Internet governance should work from the bottom up, driven by the global community of private sector, civil society and technical stakeholders. But that “multistakeholder” model is fragile. Without robust safeguards, Internet governance could fall under the sway of governments hostile to freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Ominously, governments will gain a formal voting role in ICANN for the first time when the new bylaws are implemented. NTIA has expressed its approval of this expanded role for governments in ICANN.
The multistakeholder model may also be undermined from within. ICANN’s new governance structure may prove inadequate, or the community too disunited, to hold the ICANN staff or Board accountable….
The ICANN stakeholders have proposed reforms that they hope will ensure that ICANN will be accountable to them absent the historical contractual relationship with the U.S. government. However, this process is not complete. Critical questions remain unanswered and key issues are not expected to be fully resolved until summer 2017 — including where ICANN will be subject to jurisdiction.
“We support the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance, and that’s precisely why the Transition shouldn’t be rushed,” concluded Szóka. “The U.S government’s role has helped to restrain the natural impulse of ICANN’s leadership to increase its budget and powers — though both have grown considerably anyway. The U.S. shouldn’t give up that leverage — its historic role as the ultimate backstop for Internet governance — just to meet a political deadline. Far from superseding the ICANN community, Congress must defend them. It’s not too late to repair the bipartisan consensus around Internet governance, but that will require a contract extension and careful engagement with Congress to address remaining concerns. Letting the contract lapse now sets up a needless constitutional showdown, and risks having a U.S. court block or unwind the Transition—which would be far more costly to the U.S. diplomatically than a simple extension.”
We can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. See our other work on Internet governance, including:
- Tech Policy Podcast #105: GOP Platform: Who Governs the Internet?
- Our statement, “Congress Needs Its Say on Internet Governance Transition”
- Our statement on the DOTCOM bill, “Congress Should Have Final Say Over Internet Governance”
- Video from R Street Event: Internet Governance and the Free Market
- Excerpt from a debate on the IANA Transition at IGF USA