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ICANN fights the fear in Congressional hearing

Kevin Murphy, April 3, 2014, 19:50:59 (UTC), Domain Policy

A Congressional hearing yesterday addressed fears that the decision to cut ICANN loose from US governmental oversight would lead to the internet being seized by backwards regimes.

Long-term DI readers may recall that I’m usually quite snarky whenever a Congressional subcommittee convenes to pretend to be interested in ICANN — with the reason that they usually talk a lot of nonsense.

But this time the majority of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology seemed genuinely interested, surprisingly clueful, and relatively low on hyperbolic fearmongering.

The hearing was arranged due to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s March 14 decision to remove itself from the DNS root zone management triumvirate.

Whole cartloads of horse pucky have been wheeled out in response, exemplified by breathless editorials about how the world’s most repressive governments will immediately step in to fill the NTIA-shaped void.

It’s Obama’s policy of “appeasement”, designed to allow a shirtless Vladimir Putin to drive a tank directly into the root zone file, if you believe right-leaning American commentators.

There was some of that in yesterday’s hearing, but it was overshadowed by a discussion that seemed to be more interested in addressing genuine concerns and clearing up misconceptions.

Basically, Congressmen are afraid that if the NTIA leaves its role as steward of the DNS root zone, that will somehow lead to other governments taking over and internet freedoms being diminished.

How that fear manifested itself on the committee ranged from thoughtful and understandable expressions of concern and caution to wild-eyed, nonsensical, Putin-obsessed ranting.

It was the job of witnesses Larry Stricking of the NTIA, Fadi Chehade of ICANN and Ambassador David Gross, formerly of the Department of State, to reassure Congress that everything is going to be okay.

Rep. Scalise thinks Putin is magic

At the risk of being accused of sensationalism, I’m starting with the nut-job, but only to illustrate the misinformation ICANN and the NTIA have been dealing with for the last few weeks.

In a way, Rep. Steve Scalise’s portion of the hearing’s Q&A section is a microcosm of the dialogue that has been playing out in the media since the NTIA announcement.

Scalise was the guy on the committee who seems to believe that Russia and China possess the supernatural powers necessary to “take over the internet”. Red Magic, perhaps.

Here’s an exchange with Strickling and Chehade, which began when Scalise asked the panel to address concerns about authoritarian regimes taking over the internet:

STRICKLING: We won’t let that happen, number one.

SCALISE: What’s an assurance of that? It’s good to say we won’t let that happen, it’s nice to hear it, but nobody knows what’s gong to happen. You can’t tell me what’s going to happen. How do you know you won’t let it happen?

STRICKLING: I’m saying that we will not accept a proposal that has that as its outcome. Period. End of story. So it won’t happen. Second, nobody has yet explained to me the mechanism by which any of these individual governments could somehow seize control over the internet as a whole—

SCALISE: You really don’t think that Russia… Look, Russia and China have made it very clear what they want to do to suppress internet freedom. They’ve made it very clear—

STRICKLING: And they do it within their own countries—

SCALISE: At the end of the day y’all are going to come up with some sort of process if you’re going to transfer away, and I say IF — capital I, capital F — if you transfer it away you will come up with some sort of process. Do you really not thnk that Vladimir Putin, with all the other things he’s busy with right now, ain’t going to try to figure out some way to get control? It won’t be through the Russian government directly necessarily, but China and Russia have proven very resourceful at trying to figure out what that process so that they can manipulate it. You can do all the things you want to stop that from happening but at end of the day it comes out to where those countries have figured out a way, like they’ve figured out a lot of other ways too, to do something subversive that goes against all the intentions that we have. You can’t stop that.

STRICKLING: Well, Congressman, what do you think they could do that they can’t do today?

SCALISE: What do you really think…? Look at what Putin’s doing right now! The President just doesn’t seem to take this seriously what he’s doing through Eastern Europe. He’s trying to rebuild, get the old band back together, get the Soviet Union back together, right now before our very eyes. Secretary of State Kerry says the international community won’t accept this. They’re doing it! They don’t care what the international community thinks. They’re invading a country. So what would they do to get control of the internet if you threw something out there? These are real concerns that are being expressed. The other two panelists can touch on this as well.

CHEHADE: Thank you, Congressman. Let me be clear that at ICANN it is impossible for them today to do so. They’ve been trying for 15 years—

SCALISE: Exactly! Which is why it’s working.

CHEHADE: But it’s not because the US actually has the current stewardship role, it’s because of the multistakeholder model. It stops them. Where they will try to do what you’re suggesting is in the international intergovernmental organizations. They’ve been trying to do that there. We want to take away from them any argument that they still go to the UN and try to take over what ICANN does, by making sure that ICANN is free of one government control. To show them that ICANN believes in the multistakeholder model and this great country that created that model trusts it.

Chehade 1 – Scalise 0.

But did Scalise have a point, even accidentally? I’m going to cover that question in a separate post.

Rep Shimkus really wants you to support his bill

A recurring theme of the hearing was the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act, introduced by Rep. John Shimkus and others last week.

I called the bill “pointless” when it emerged, as all it does is delay any transition for a year until the US Government Accountability Office has conducted a study of the ramifications.

But there’s also a feeling that the Act would be a distraction at best and may cast more uncertainty than is necessary over the transition process at a critical time for internet governance.

Both Strickling and Chehade prevaricated when Shimkus asked them outright, repeatedly, if they were opposed to the GAO review.

Strickling said he “neither or supports or opposes” such a review but said he was “in favor of full discussion of these issues”.

Chehade, seemingly reluctant to tie himself to a one-government review said he did not have a view, but that he committed to full transparency in the issue.

The fact that Chehade had said that there was “no rush” to conclude the transition process was later used by Shimkus as a gotcha, when he pointed out that the Act’s one-year delay would not have an impact.

On a second panel, Carolina Rossini of the Internet Governance and Human Rights Program of the New American Foundation, gave perhaps a fuller explanation of why there’s caution about the bill.

My concern is that if we wait one year, if we block the transition now and wait one year until we have a report, that is the risk. And that’s the risk that we have non-democratic governments to actually make their voices even louder and manipulate the narrative both in NetMundial and in the [ITU] plenipot in November.

Shimkus said he’d concluded that Chehade and Strickling has “in essence supported the bill”, which I don’t think was necessarily a fair interpretation of what they said.

The two-and-a-half hour hearing had a couple of other diversions — Rep Blackburn going off on a crazy tangent about net neutrality and Rep Latta wasting everyone’s time to score points on behalf of a constituent, a .med gTLD applicant — but otherwise it was generally sane stuff.

The committee seemed to be fairly well-briefed on the subject before them. Most of the Congressmen expressed their concerns about the transition in sensible terms and seemed to take the answers on board.

Special recognition should also be given to Chehade, who won the slightly condescending praise and admiration of some of the committee when he choked up on an abridged version of his immigrant origin story.

He has an uncanny ability to speak to his audience at every occasion and he put it to excellent use yesterday.

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Comments (12)

  1. Michael Castello says:

    The were other speakers with opposing views weren’t there? I don’t see where you mentioned them here. I will reread your article a couple more times. It seems a bit one sided. As a reader I would appreciate both viewpoints if possible in order to draw my own conclusion.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      Opposing views to what? I believe this post covered the different views that were expressed during the hearing. If I missed something I’m quite happy to update the post accordingly.

  2. “They’ve been trying to do that there. We want to take away from them any argument that they still go to the UN and try to take over what ICANN does, by making sure that ICANN is free of one government control. To show them that ICANN believes in the multistake holder model and this great country that created that model trusts it”. – Chehade

    Mr. Chehade, in the above statement is actually saying that the Russians/China have been trying to do what everyone is suspecting that they would do, and most damning part is that Chehade is proposing this because of the pressure he is getting from Russia and/or China, in order to remove the one ‘valid point’ Chehade believes they have, which is too much control by the US.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      Yup. He’s saying that if the internet is perceived to be controlled by the US, then Russia and China have a better chance of getting the ITU to vote to take over ICANN. If the US walks away and ICANN is independent, Russia and China can no longer claim ICANN is American.

      I don’t think it’s pressure from Russia and China though, more from countries such as Brazil and India, which were prevaricating between asking for multilateral and multistakeholder solutions.

      • Scott Pinzon says:

        Kevin, I love the clarity with which you point out the irrelevance of issues perceived by the less clear-thinking as “related.” Scaremongering about Red Magic is not on topic, nor is news about a given new gTLD.
        In that same spirit of “related only because it’s about the Internet,” I think there may be non-reasoned but very real pressure for the US to make a show of giving up control of the root because of the Snowden revelations about a rogue NSA trying to record every online transaction everywhere. I think all countries of the world would feel some slight relief about the NTIA walking away from control of the root because it’s just good optics internationally. From a technical level, that doesn’t restrict the NSA from doing anything it does now. But I sure have seen a lot of articles conflating Strickling’s welcome move with “pressure from the Edward Snowden revelations.”

        • Kevin Murphy says:

          In my view, the transition would not be happening if it wasn’t for Snowden. I think that’s obvious. Like many background items that are obvious, I didn’t mention it in this piece.

          Chehade and Strickling have been playing down the Snowden influence. They’ve stopped short of outright lying, in my opinion, but they’ve gotten perilously close and I’m listening carefully to what they say on the matter. Their credibility is at risk.

          The transition, to be clear, would not be happening if Snowden hadn’t done what he done.

      • @Mr. Murphy,

        In order words, you agree that Chehade is doing because of pressure, but your guess on which countries more expansive than mine, not necessarily diminutive ones, as far as size, power, and/or interests.

        I believe the nucleus of my comment ‘why’, not ‘who’ in terms of the pressure.

  3. C: swap ‘order’ with ‘other’.

    Thanks

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