COLUMN: Department of Commerce to End Oversight of Internet Domain Name System
What I did to delay it and what it means for the future of the free and open Internet
By Rep. John Shimkus (R, Illinois-15)
On Wednesday, Congress approved a bill to keep the federal government open through December 9. That continuing resolution ensures our troops will be paid, and includes funding to implement my landmark chemical safety legislation and fight the spread of Zika, without allowing those funds to be used to pay for abortions.
One thing the continuing resolution didn’t include, however, was a provision to prevent the United States from relinquishing oversight of the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). The DNS, which can be thought of as the Internet’s master phone book, ensures that when you type in a web address (like house.gov) you reach the correct website. This matching process makes browsing the Internet possible for the average user.
The day-to-day management of the global DNS is handled by a California-based nonprofit group called ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN, which is made up of engineers, academics, businesses and individual Internet users from all over the world, was created in 1998 to ensure the Internet would never be controlled by governments or an intergovernmental organization like the United Nations.
Much like the Framers of our Constitution sought to balance the influence and power that competing factions like political parties, unions or trade groups could exert on our Republic, ICANN’s ‘multi-stakeholder’ structure seeks to prevent any one entity – be it a multinational corporation or a government – from gaining control of the DNS.
To help apply this uniquely American idea of government by the people to the global Internet, the U.S. Department of Commerce established itself as an overseer of ICANN and the DNS management it performs. This U.S. oversight was never intended to be a permanent feature of Internet Governance, but was thought of more like training wheels – a temporary measure to be removed once ICANN proved it could stand on its own, independent of government control.
In calls and emails I’ve received over the last few days, many of my constituents have expressed a concern that this year was not the right time to end U.S. oversight of ICANN. I share those concerns, and that’s why I immediately engaged on this issue in 2014 when the Department of Commerce announced they intended relinquish their oversight of ICANN and the DNS. That year I introduced legislation to ensure the change would be made only if it was found to be in the best interests of the American people and done in a way that preserved and protected the free and open Internet.
My legislation, which was approved by the House last June for the second time, would have empowered Congress with necessary and meaningful oversight of the proposed changes. It would have given us an opportunity to investigate whether ICANN was actually ready to operate on its own and would have allowed plenty of time to extend Commerce’s oversight authority if it was not.
Unfortunately, my bill was held up in the Senate until it was too late. So with Congress unable to fully consider this important change, I urged the Department of Commerce to extend their contract with ICANN and preserve U.S. oversight until we could be sure the time was right. I also communicated my desire to have a provision included in the continuing resolution to maintain our oversight until that time.
Again, however, the Senate failed to act and the provision was not included this week. As a result, the Attorneys General of Arizona, Oklahoma, Nevada and Texas filed a lawsuit to stop the Department of Commerce from moving forward with their plan on October 1. Like the attorneys general, I remain concerned that ICANN may not yet be fully prepared to stand on its own. Should their lawsuit prove unsuccessful, it will be up to the system of checks and balances established at ICANN to prevent foreign governments from seizing control.