A plan by the Obama administration to relinquish control over the organization that administers the Internet is raising concerns that the United Nations -- or individual foreign governments -- could make a play for Internet control.
The organization in question is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. The group controls Internet domain names and other aspects of Internet architecture, and operates under a contract with the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
On Friday, that agency quietly announced that it wants ICANN to come up with a new governing structure -- one that would be "global" and involve multiple "stakeholders."
"This is all about ... separating the Internet from government control," said Cameron Kerry, former general counsel with the Commerce Department. "And the United States is in the strongest position to argue against government control of the Internet if it relinquishes that last little bit of control that it has."
But some voiced concern that the move could create confusion, and the possibility that unsavory actors in the international community would try to seize the reins. Of particular concern is whether Internet domain names would eventually come under control of a government less committee to free speech than the United States.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took to Twitter on Friday to sharply challenge the Commerce Department's decision, warning that it "risks foreign dictatorships defining the internet."
"Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous," Gingrich tweeted.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., according to Politico, cautioned that it would be a "scary thought" to be in a situation where nations like China or Russia "could take a firm hold on the Internet."
Leaders of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation voiced initial support for the Commerce Department plan.
"The U.S. helped create the Internet, and we want to see it grow and stand on its own. It doesn't need a nanny state, or a collection of nanny states, trying to stifle it," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the committee's top Republican, said.
But Thune also warned that lawmakers would be "watching closely" as the transition proceeds.
"There are people who want to see the Internet fall into the grip of the U.N. or who would allow ICANN to become an unaccountable organization with the power to control the Internet, and we cannot allow them to determine how this process plays out," he said in a statement.
It's not clear what arrangement ICANN will come up with.
Officials at NTIA say this shift of authority has been on the books as official policy since 1997, but that another government, or group of governments, will not be allowed to assume control.
Mary Kissel, of the Wall Street editorial board, indicated she believes the administration on that point.
"I don't defend them a lot, but on this one I will," she said. "They will not release that tether between Commerce and ICANN unless there is no government control, the Internet remains secure and stable, and the Internet remains free and open."
Fox News' James Rosen contributed to this report.