The administration insists no government will gain new influence over the Internet.
An Obama administration plan to give up oversight of certain technical Internet functions could open the door to a takeover by authoritarian regimes, Republican lawmakers claimed Wednesday.
If Russia or China gain new influence over the management of the Internet, they could begin censoring content or blocking websites, the Republicans warned.
"Make no mistake: Threats to the openness and freedom of the Internet are real," said Republican Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, which held a hearing on the issue Wednesday. "Leaders such as Vladimir Putin have explicitly announced their desire to gain control of the Internet."
Walden and other Republicans are pushing a bill that would block the transfer of authority until the Government Accountability Office can study the issue. Dozens of Senate Republicans, led by John Thune and Marco Rubio, sent a letter to the administration on Wednesday, demanding more answers about the plan.
But Democrats at Wednesday's hearing insisted that if Republicans were serious about Internet freedom, they would support the U.S. proposal. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Strickling said the U.S. will make sure that no foreign government will be able to seize new powers over the Internet.
"No one has yet to explain to me the mechanism by which any of these individual governments could somehow seize control of the Internet as a whole," Strickling said.
"Do you really think that Vladimir Putin... isn't going to figure out some way to get control?" Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, shot back. "China and Russia can be very resourceful,"
Last month, the Commerce Department announced that it will give the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), 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.
By ending that contract, the U.S. will give up an "important backstop" that has protected the Internet from authoritarian regimes, Walden said. If ICANN bowed to pressure from Russia, China, or Iran, the U.S. could have always pulled the group's contractual authority. But once the U.S. gives up its power, "there is no putting this genie back in the bottle," Walden warned.
Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said he is afraid that if the U.S. steps back, "the next government that might want to do something, the Russians or the Chinese, will not take the same attitude as the U.S. government towards online freedom."
But House Democrats argued that the move is just the latest step in the U.S. government's longtime support of the "multi-stakeholder" model of Internet governance, in which power rests with a broad range of companies, nonprofit groups, academics, and others.
"It's now time for the United States to walk the walk and demonstrate to the world that while the Internet was a product of American genius, no government or intergovernmental organization should control its future," Rep. Anna Eshoo, the subcommittee's top Democrat, said Wednesday.
Rep. Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the full Energy and Commerce Committee, argued that the administration's plan is in line with a resolution that Congress unanimously passed in 2012, announcing support for an Internet free from government control.
Strickling promised that the U.S. government will not give up its authority over ICANN until the nonprofit group produces a credible plan for how it will manage the Internet's address functions going forward. Any plan that would give authority to other governments or intergovernmental organizations would be a nonstarter, he said.
He argued that the transition will actually build trust in the multi-stakeholder model, which will help to undermine any foreign attempts to gain Internet power through the United Nations or other avenues.
"Taking this action is the best measure to prevent authoritarian regimes from expanding their restrictive policies beyond their own borders," Strickling said.
Fadi Chehadé, the president and CEO of ICANN, vowed to defend Internet freedom from attacks by other governments and urged lawmakers to trust in the multi-stakeholder model.
"At the heart of this proposal is the commitment to security, stability, and resiliency. That is our number one job," he said.
A range of companies and civil liberties groups have endorsed the administration's plan. Most recently, the Internet Association, a lobbying group that includes Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, sent a letter to House lawmakers supporting the proposal.
The transfer of authority is set to take place in October 2015.