A House panel voted along party lines on Thursday to delay the Obama administration's plan to give up oversight over certain technical Internet management functions.
Republicans are worried that the proposal, which would transfer power to an international nonprofit group, could open the door to an Internet takeover by authoritarian regimes.
The Republicans on the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee overrode vocal Democratic opposition to advance the DOTCOM Act, which would instruct the Government Accountability Office to investigate the administration's plan. The bill would block the transfer of Internet powers for up to a year while the office prepares a report.
The bill now heads to the full Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration.
Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, argued that given the "magnitude" of the issue, the United States should carefully study the proposal before moving forward.
"We should at least pause long enough to have an independent nonpartisan body we all respect look over whatever [the administration] comes back with and say, 'What effect does it have?' " Walden said.
He warned that if the U.S. gives up its role overseeing Internet address functions, that could allow Russia or China to seize power.
"We know what China has done to silence dissent, and we've read the statements of Vladimir Putin who wants to use the powers of the [International Telecommunications Union] to control the Internet," Walden said. "These threats are real."
But Democrats accused Republicans of being paranoid, and argued that the administration's plan would only continue the longtime position of the U.S. government to support the "multi-stakeholder" model of Internet governance, in which power rests with private companies, nonprofit groups, academics, engineers, and others.
"There is no plan to turn the Internet over to rogue governments. The plan is to stick with the plan," Rep. Anna Eshoo, the subcommittee's top Democrat, said. "It is not a conspiracy or a digital black helicopter."
Last month, the Commerce Department announced it will give the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, an international nonprofit group, control over a set of technical procedures that allows computers around the world to connect to Web addresses.
Although the Internet was invented in the United States, the U.S. government has never "controlled" it. And ICANN has actually managed the Internet's address system since 1998. But ICANN's authority stems from a contract it receives from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department agency.
Administration officials say they won't end the contract until ICANN produces a credible plan for how it will manage the Internet functions going forward and that any plan that would give power to other governments would be dead-on-arrival.
At Thursday's subcommittee vote, Democrats said they are not opposed to having the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm, study the issue. But they warned that the Republican bill would tie the administration's hands and derail the transfer of Internet oversight authority.
Eshoo argued the Republicans are violating legislation that the House unanimously passed last year, endorsing the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.
"I suggest members go back and read what they voted for," she said. "You are unravelling what you voted for."
She said the DOTCOM Act (which she called the "Dot Con Act") is a "source of embarrassment to a committee that has mostly acted in a bipartisan way."
Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, argued that relinquishing oversight of the Internet address functions will actually help to bolster Internet freedom. He said countries such as Russia and China point to the unique U.S. role as evidence that the United States doesn't actually support private-sector control of the Internet. Those authoritarian regimes use that argument when they push the United Nations and other international bodies to give them more influence over the Internet, Doyle said.
Walden said he would be open to shortening the delay from one year to six months but that Congress should be able to fully review the transfer before it occurs.
"The whole purpose here is to have the information before the administration takes its action," he said.
Republicans rejected four amendments from Democrats that would have scaled back the bill.