Republicans gear up for fight against internet transition

Republicans in Congress are barreling toward a September showdown with the White House over its plan to give up oversight of the internet, as the Obama administration tries to rally support from the tech and telecom industries.

GOP lawmakers have long warned that the administration's plan to relinquish its authority over ICANN, the global nonprofit that manages the internet's domain name system, could give authoritarian countries like China and Russia an opening to make an online power grab. Now, as the actual date of the transition approaches — Oct. 1 — Republicans are looking at throwing up new obstacles.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is pledging to make the issue his primary focus this month, beginning with a floor speech on Thursday, in which he's expected to rail against the Obama administration's strategy. Cruz has already launched a website claiming the president is “giving away the internet," complete with a spinning countdown clock against a black background. And he's scheduled a hearing of the Senate Judiciary oversight subcommittee he chairs next week to “investigate the possible dangers” of the plan.

Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said Wednesday that language to delay the transition could be included in the continuing resolution to fund the government past this month. And House Republicans are considering their options in the coming appropriations bill, a GOP aide confirmed this week.

“I don’t think the foundation has been appropriately laid for this,” Thune said in an interview. “Some members are adamantly opposed to transition, period, and a lot of them just think now is not the time, and it really just hasn’t been vetted, and it’s not ready yet.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), another member of the Commerce committee, said the administration's deadline is "arbitrary."

"The transition should not move forward until our many concerns have been addressed," he said in a statement to POLITICO. "There won’t be a second chance to get this right.”

Fearing congressional roadblocks, the Obama administration has quietly been urging tech and telecom giants to go to bat for its strategy.

Senior officials at the Commerce Department encouraged companies and trade groups at a private meeting on Wednesday to make public shows of support — and contest criticisms that the plan jeopardizes internet freedom, two sources who attended the session told POLITICO.

Among those represented at the session were trade organizations like the Internet Association, NetChoice and CCIA, companies like Verizon and 21st Century Fox, and groups like the Internet Society, the sources said. In his pitch to industry, Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews stressed that the credibility of the U.S. government and its commitment to the international community are on the line, the two attendees told POLITICO after the meeting.

But Andrews also indicated the agency would have no choice but to adhere to what Congress prescribes — suggesting, the sources said, that the Commerce Department might not try to find a legal workaround to any ban imposed by lawmakers. He also said the agency is keeping an eye on potential lawsuits. The libertarian group TechFreedom — which sources said did not attend the meeting Wednesday — has threatened such a move.

The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced the transition plan in 2014, saying it would enhance the "multistakeholder model" of internet governance. The agency said it was always envisioned that the U.S. role in overseeing the functions would be temporary. The announcement came in the wake of Edward Snowden's leaks about NSA surveillance — which sparked questions in Europe and elsewhere about the U.S. role in managing the internet's architecture.

Republicans quickly criticized the decision, saying the loosening of U.S. control would create a vacuum filled by the likes of Russia and China, leading to more online censorship. Since then, Congress has passed a series of funding provisions that bar the agency from relinquishing its responsibility over the domain name functions. The latest of those provisions is set to expire Sept. 30.

NTIA has argued it hasn't violated the congressional restrictions by making plans for the transition, and in an interview Wednesday, the agency's chief, Larry Strickling, urged Congress not to delay the process any further.

“It’s important for the future of the Internet that the transition not be blocked on Sept. 30,” Strickling told POLITICO, stressing that the delay would be “giving a gift to Russia and China.” The NTIA chief said the government had spent “two years developing a plan,” and abandoning it would “hurt the credibility of America in the eyes of the rest of the world.”

But there's been steady drumbeat of GOP opposition over the past few days.

An aide for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he thinks the transition should be delayed due to ongoing problems with the proposal. Rubio, along with four other Republican senators, wrote to the NTIA saying the transition plan was not ready and urging an extension of the U.S. contract with ICANN.

House Republicans have been vocal on the issue as well. On the first day Congress came back into session this week, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) delivered a floor speech on the importance of stopping the transfer of authority.

“Think about this. We cannot allow control for Russia or China over U.S. free speech,” she said.

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