A coalition of technology groups and conservatives wants Congress to sue to stop the Obama administration from handing over control of Internet domain names to an international board, charging it could give authoritarian regimes power over the web.
Since 1998, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department called the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) has handled domain names. However, in September, the Obama administration plans to allow the U.S. government’s contract to lapse so the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will be run by a global board of directors with the domain-naming responsibility. Many fear this will allow governments such as Russia, China and Iran to have a stake in Internet governance and the “de facto” power to tax domain names and stifle free speech.
Congress twice included riders in appropriations bills to expressly prohibit tax dollars from being used for the transition, which President Obama signed into law. So, if the Obama administration allows the contract to lapse in September it could mark yet another questionable executive action by the administration.
That’s part of the reason the tech groups and conservatives are asking House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and other congressional leaders to support litigation, similar to that which the House took against the Obama administration regarding unauthorized spending on Obamacare in a 2014 lawsuit.
“Suing to enforce the appropriations rider and extending it through FY2017 are amply justified by the extraordinary importance of the constitutional principle at stake,” the coalition letter says.
The letter also says that the Obama administration has not ensured the United States will maintain ownership of domain names .mil or .gov for military and government websites.
“Without robust safeguards, Internet governance could fall under the sway of governments hostile to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment,” the letter says. “Ominously, governments will gain a formal voting role in ICANN for the first time when the new bylaws are implemented.”
Speaker Ryan’s office referred questions on the matter to the House Judiciary Committee, which did not immediately respond to FoxNews.com for this story.
TechFreedom spearheaded the letter signed by 26 organizations, including Protect Internet Freedom, Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights and Americans for Tax Reform; and 11 individuals such as TechFreedom President Berin Szóka; National Bloggers Club President Ali Akbar and Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Congress twice told the White House to pause the transition, yet the Commerce Department is blatantly ignoring the law,” Szóka said in a statement. “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. That means making clear to the administration that the House will sue if NTIA does not extend the contract.”
However, the Obama administration contends it isn’t bound by the appropriation bills.
“The law prohibits NTIA from using appropriated funds to ‘relinquish the responsibility during fiscal year 2016, with respect to Internet domain name system functions,’” NTIA spokeswoman Juliana Grunewald told FoxNews.com. “However, the law does not prohibit NTIA from evaluating a transition proposal or engaging in other preparatory activities related to the transition. In fact, Congress directed NTIA to conduct a thorough review of any proposed transition plan we receive and to provide Congress with quarterly updates on the transition, which we have done.”
Gruenwald noted that a number of organizations have supported the transition, such as Freedom House, the Internet Society, the Internet Association, Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Internet Infrastructure Association.
The Obama administration announced in 2014 it planned to let the contract between the Commerce Department and ICANN expire at the end of fiscal year 2016, allowing the operating of the Internet absent the U.S. government.
The coalition letter continues by warning that the ICANN structure will have a tough time holding board members and staff accountable.
“ICANN has already morphed from the technical coordinating body set up in 1998 into something much more like a government: It has the de facto power to tax domain names,” the letter says. It adds, “There are good reasons to worry about what it may do with this power absent the incentive for self-restraint created by its contract with the U.S.”
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and James Lankford of Oklahoma have sponsored the Protecting Internet Freedom Act to prevent the transition.
In June, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairmen of the Judiciary Committees of their respective chambers, wrote to Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Strickling, stating the transfer would be illegal.
“As we are sure you are aware, it is a violation of federal law for an officer or employee of the United States government ‘to make or authorize an expenditure or obligation exceeding an amount available in an appropriation or fund for the expenditure or obligation,’” the letter says. “It is troubling that NTIA appears to have taken these actions in violation of this prohibition.”
In a letter of response on Aug. 10, Strickling told the lawmakers they had a “misunderstanding” of the transition.
“Free expression exists and flourishes online not because of perceived U.S. government oversight over the [domain name system], or because of any asserted special relationship that the United States has with ICANN,” Strickling said in the letter. “It exists and is protected when stakeholders work together to make decisions.”