Republicans Question Constitutionality of Obama’s Plan to Give Up Internet Authority

Is the Obama administration trying to turn over federal “property” to the international community?

Thomas Trutschel AFP/Getty

The Obama administration’s plan to give up its role in the technical management of the Internet could be unconstitutional, according to top congressional Republicans.

The Commerce Department announced last year that it will end its authority over the servers and other infrastructure necessary for computers around the world to reach websites. The ultimate power over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit group that manages the Internet's address function, would instead belong to the “global stakeholder community.”

In a letter released Monday and dated Sept. 22, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Rep. Darrell Issa argued that the plan could violate the constitutional requirement that only Congress has the power to “dispose of … property belonging to the United States.”

The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which plans to complete the transfer of authority next year, did not respond to a request to comment on the letter.

“If the contract governing U.S. oversight of the Internet is indeed government property, the Administration’s intention to cede control to the ‘global stakeholder community’— including nations like Iran, Russia and China that do not value free speech and in fact seek to stifle it—is in violation of the Constitution and should be stopped,” Cruz said in a separate statement.

In their letter, the Republicans asked the Government Accountability Office to determine whether the Commerce Department’s plan would transfer any U.S. government property to ICANN. The lawmakers cited a GAO report from 2000, which had said it was “unclear” whether a transition of authority would actually mean a transfer of any physical property. Charles Young, a spokesman for the GAO, said the agency is reviewing the letter—a process that will likely take a few weeks.

The Obama administration has argued that its plan would strengthen trust in the “multi-stakeholder” model of Internet governance, in which ultimate power rests with nonprofit groups, companies, academics, and engineers, rather than governments.

Jamie Hedlund, ICANN’s vice president of strategic programs, said he is “confident” that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration “possesses the requisite authority to transition” its authority over the Internet’s address system to the global community. “In the meantime, the ICANN community will continue to develop proposals to transition NTIA’s stewardship role,” he said.

While some Republicans warn the plan could give authoritarian regimes an opportunity to seize power over the Internet, other Republicans are instead focusing on ensuring that the transfer includes appropriate safeguards.

The Republican leaders of the Commerce Committees in both chambers—Sen. John Thune, Rep. Fred Upton, and Rep. Greg Walden—are backing legislation that would allow the Internet transition to go ahead as long as Congress is given time to review the details of the plan. That bill, the Dotcom Act, passed the House 378-25 in June. But Cruz has been blocking the legislation from reaching the Senate floor. He argues that Congress should have a chance to deny the transfer of authority.

Aides for Thune, Upton, and Walden did not comment on the letter.

—This article has been updated with comments from the GAO and ICANN.