Civil society coalition issues letter in support of DNS transition ahead of congressional hearing

Today marks the first in what is likely to be a series of congressional hearings called in response to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) historic announcement of its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions (DNS) to the global multistakeholder community.

While a wide range of entities, including Access, welcomed this move as long overdue and overall a positive development, a number of U.S. conservative media outlets and public figures, from Sarah Palin to Newt Gingrich responded with alarmist claims that the U.S. was surrendering control of the internet to authoritarian regimes like Russia and China. A group of lawmakers led by Reps. Marsha Blackburn and John Shimkus have even proposed legislation, the DOTCOM act, legislation which would prohibit NTIA from relinquishing oversight over the DNS until the General Accountability Office submits a report.

In advance of today’s hearing, Access, along with the Center for Democracy & Technology, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, The Open Technology Institute at New America Foundation, and Public Knowledge have sent a letter to Congress expressing our support for the proposed transition.

With the letter, we highlight our view that the proposed transition as a long overdue and important step in advancing the security, stability, resilience, and freedom of the global internet if it meets the internationally recognized standards of inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability. Moreover, we consider the proposed transition critical for thwarting attempts to undermine the open, decentralized model of internet governance and impose new governmental or intergovernmental controls, which would have devastating implications for human rights worldwide.

It is worth expanding a few underlying arguments here:

First, the move to transition oversight over key internet functions out of NTIA purview was not a rash one, or a sign of weakness, but the fulfillment of a long term promise by the U.S. made almost 16 years ago. In June 1998, the Department of Commerce issued a Statement of Policy that asserted:

“The U.S. Government is committed to a transition that will allow the private sector to take leadership for DNS management. Most commenters shared this goal. While international organizations may provide specific expertise or act as advisors to the new corporation, the U.S. continues to believe, as do most commenters, that neither national governments acting as sovereigns nor intergovernmental organizations acting as representatives of governments should participate in management of Internet names and addresses”.

The timing of this announcement may be strategic ahead of the NetMundial meeting later this month in Sao Paulo, Brazil during which the evolution of the internet governance ecosystem will be debated. And perhaps the timing of this announcement is in part a reaction to the intense international pressure the U.S. has faced in the year since the Snowden revelation, though as many have pointed out linking surveillance and internet governance conflates two important issues in inaccurate, and politically motivated, ways. Aside from speculation about “why now,” it is important to remember that the IANA transition is consistent with U.S. policy.

Second, while there are a number of valid concerns about what the new arrangement will look like, the key principles proposed by NTIA provide a sound framework for guiding this important transition. NTIA has said explicitly that it will reject any proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution and is instead seeking a community generated proposal that supports and enhances the open, decentralized, bottom-­up, multistakeholder model? maintains the security, stability, and resiliency of the internet’s domain name system? and maintains the openness of the internet.

A transition on those terms would be fully consistent with prior bipartisan, unanimous statements of policy by the Congress (H. CON. RES. 127/S. CON. RES. 50) seeking to “preserve and advance the multistakeholder governance model under which the Internet has thrived.”

Third, the internet is a global resource, one that is used by people in every world. Regardless of the fact that the U.S. has taken a largely hands off approach to its responsibility over the DNS, the simple fact that a single, has government performs an oversight role for what is clearly a global resource has drawn criticism and growing opposition from the international community.

Finally, forestalling the transfer of these management functions to the global multistakeholder community in the near future could further empower critics who favor a governmental or intergovernmental model of internet governance, whether implemented through the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) or some other government-­dominated, non­-multistakeholder body. U.S. responsibility over the DNS has long been an example that governments point to at international meetings as evidence that the current governance of the internet is not democratic. This fact is indisputable. However, what sometimes follows is a proposal for an intergovernmental body for global internet governance, which could give governments a much much larger role in the management and regulation of the internet, which could have devastating implications for human rights worldwide.

Today’s hearing will be webcast starting at 10:30 EDT here:

For more information on the IANA transition see these FAQs from NTIA and ICANN.