Thune Concerned About Title II Impact on ITU

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) used a hearing on the U.S. hand-off of domain naming system/IP address oversight to hammer on the FCC's Feb. 26 vote on Title II-supported net neutrality rules.

The hearing featured the current CEO of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Name and Numbers) Fadi Chehadé, ambassador David Gross, former U.S. coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy and appearing on behalf of the Internet Governance Coalition (IGC), and Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), testifying about the planned transition of oversight of domain naming and ISP address assigning from the NTIA to a multistakeholder model. IGC members are an eclectic group, including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Google, Fox, Disney and Verizon.

It was clear that Title II reclassification was very much on the agenda for Thune, who is leading a legislative effort to block that FCC move, though a legislative stop is highly unlikely.

Thune asked whether reclassifying Internet access as a telecommunications service would strengthen or weaken America's ability to keep the International Telecommunications Union from tariffing the Internet, as some members have wanted to do (that issue also came up in a House hearing on net neutrality on the other side the Hill at about the same time).

Gross said he was still waiting to see what the FCC was going to do and that the details would be important. But with that caveat, he also said that it has long been U.S. policy under Democratic and Republican Administration's alike, that the ITU should have no jurisdiction over Internet-related issues. He pointed out that there has been an ITU contingent that says its scope is telecommunications, so  that if the FCC does classify Internet as telecom, they will assert they do now have jurisdiction. He said that would make the job of his successors more difficult in insuring that the ITU does not seek jurisdiction.

The ITU is the UN agency charged with coordinating global communications.

Thune said reclassifying the Internet under Title II would seem like losing a valuable argument— that the Internet is not the same as telecom.

Strickling said he did not think the situation was as stark as it was being painted. He said it is typical for some countries to push for bringing Internet issues under ITU's purview at international conferences and conventions, which European countries and Canada have opposed even though they view the Internet as a telecom service. He said he didn't think that would change. Thune said he hoped he was right, but added that he thought Title II was sending the wrong message.

The focus of the hearing was the plan to transition the Internet naming/IP address assignment functions from U.S. oversight —NTIA says it has been mostly ceremonial— to a private, multistakeholder model.

Republicans and some Democrats have expressed concern that if the U.S. gives up that oversight, other governments could try to turn that multistakeholder into a multi-governmental regime. That would be a nonstarter with Thune, but also with all the witnesses.

Strickling promised that NTIA "would not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution."

And while the NTIA contract to oversee the ICANN domain name system (DNS) and Internet address assignments (IANA) functions expires Sept. 30 of this year, Strickling pointed out that it could be extended up to four years if there were any issues with the transition. Gross said there should be no rush, suggesting it was better to get it right than to do it fast.

Gross said IGC would be watching the process like a hawk to make sure that NTIA gets it right, and IGC would be the first to say if it thought NTIA hadn't. Thune, too, said the committee would hold NTIA to the "red lines" it had drawn on the hand-off, saying he did not want ICANN to turn into a FIFA, flush with money but lacking accountability. Invoking the carpenter's version of the Hippocratic oath, Thune said of coming up with a transition plan: "Measure twice; cut once."

Chehadé signaled he had heard and shared their concerns, but that "it is now time to show the world that when we say we believe in the multistakeholder model, we do what we say."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.