Four Republican state attorneys general are suing to stop the Obama administration from transferring oversight of the internet to an international body, arguing the transition would violate the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit — filed Wednesday in a Texas federal court — threatens to throw up a new roadblock to one of the White House’s top tech priorities, just days before the scheduled Oct. 1 transfer of the internet’s address system is set to take place.
In their lawsuit, the attorneys general for Arizona, Oklahoma, Nevada and Texas contend that the transition, lacking congressional approval, amounts to an illegal giveaway of U.S. government property. They also express fear that the proposed new steward of the system, a nonprofit known as ICANN, would be so unchecked that it could “effectively enable or prohibit speech on the Internet.”
The four states further contend that ICANN could revoke the U.S. government’s exclusive use of .gov and .mil, the domains used by states, federal agencies and the U.S. military for their websites. And the four attorneys general argue that ICANN’s “current practices often foster a lack of transparency that, in turn, allows illegal activity to occur.”
“Trusting authoritarian regimes to ensure the continued freedom of the internet is lunacy,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement. “The president does not have the authority to simply give away America’s pioneering role in ensuring that the internet remains a place where free expression can flourish.”
A spokeswoman for NTIA, the Commerce Department agency handling the transition, declined to comment on the case Thursday. Previously, federal officials have said any delay to their transition plans would embolden the U.S. government’s harshest critics.
Larry Strickling, the leader of NTIA, said earlier this month that the government had spent “two years developing a plan,” stressing that any last-minute attempt to abandon it would “hurt the credibility of America in the eyes of the rest of the world.” And his agency has repeatedly refuted some of the claims made in the lawsuit filed Wednesday. For example, it’s pointed to a study by the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog, which concluded that the transition does not wrongly turn over U.S. government property.
Since the 1990s, the U.S. has sought to unwind its influence from the Web’s architecture, arguing that experts from the international community — and not governments, including Washington — should oversee its day-to-day operations.
But the transition of the domain-name system to ICANN gained new momentum in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s leaks about U.S. surveillance, with the Obama administration eager to avoid criticism from world leaders that Washington has too much power over the internet.
Tech companies have largely supported that plan, which the Commerce Department first announced in 2014. But conservatives on Capitol Hill, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, have argued that by loosening its grip on the internet, the administration will empower the likes of Russia and China and give them a bigger opening to control and censor the web.
Cruz initially sought to block the transfer as part of the Senate’s latest spending deal, hoping to revive a congressional ban on the Commerce Department’s ICANN work from the previous budget. He even enlisted the help of GOP nominee Donald Trump, who chided the Obama administration for risking the future of internet freedom.
But Senate lawmakers, fearing a shutdown, ultimately opted against blocking the internet governance transition as part of a budget deal brokered on Wednesday. The House, hours later, followed suit. House Republicans, however, have not yet decided whether they intend to launch a legal action of their own against the Obama administration over the internet issue.
In an interview Thursday with POLITICO, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich stressed he joined other states in the lawsuit because “essentially Congress went into its default mode, which is do nothing.”
“I think, as a matter of philosophy, turning this over ultimately is maybe a great idea in the long run,” the attorney general said, “but I do think there are a lot of stakeholders involved, and we want to make sure no one in the future can limit or suppress access to the internet or punish people for speaking their minds.”