- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2015

Republican lawmakers want a federal watchdog group to ensure that the government’s expected relinquishing of an Internet naming system next year doesn’t come at the cost of violating the Constitution.

In a recent letter to the Government Accountability Office, GOP members of the House and Senate ask the agency to consider the constitutional ramifications of ending Washington’s long-standing but limited role with respect to functions of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA.

For nearly two decades, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has relied on approval from an agency within the Commerce Department before new top-level domains like “.com” and “.org” are added to the list of acceptable online suffixes. An agreement years in the making is expected to see that the government’s role expires in 2016, however, and now Republicans in both chambers of Congress are raising concerns over whether the removal of a federal agency from the equation will amount to a transfer of federal property.

The letter, dated Sept. 22, calls on GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro to decide if terminating ICANN’s contract with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) “will cause government property, of any kind, to be transferred to ICANN.”

At the heart of the matter, as far as the lawmakers are concerned, is management of the root zone file — a directory of name and records pertaining to the world’s top-level domains.

Because the root zone file was largely bankrolled by the U.S. government through Department of Defense research, the Republicans who signed the letter — Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Rep. Darrell Issa of California — say the GAO should conduct a review of the contract to consider the possible implications and “to determine whether the agency has the legal authority to conduct such a transfer to a nongovernmental entity without congressional approval.”

“If this file — or other government-developed components of the Internet — are determined to be the property of the government, then transferring their control to a nongovernmental entity without congressional consent, as the Department of Commerce has proposed, may violate the Constitution,” the lawmakers wrote. 

Should the watchdog happen to agree that taking away powers from NTIA amounts to a transfer of property, than Republicans may stand a chance at preventing ICANN from getting rid of the Commerce Department’s role with respect to the IANA.

Previously, Mr. Cruz warned that relinquishing U.S. control over the Internet naming system would allow the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Chinese President Xi Jinping to “dictate what can be read, written, distributed, bought and sold on the Internet.”

“Countries that do not give their own people the right to speak freely deserve no say in what Americans can say and do on the Internet,” the GOP presidential candidate warned last year.

“Some people want or would prefer for the U.S. government to continue to have a symbolic role,” ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade told The Washington Times earlier this year. “The moment the U.S. government steps away, we take away all the arguments of the countries who are saying, ‘Why do they have a special role? We should have a special role.’ “

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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