Internet Freedom Continues to Divide Congress

House votes to block the use of federal funds for a shift in Internet oversight.

Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., ask a question during a House Financial Services Committee subcommittee hearing on March 16, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., is leading an effort to keep the U.S. in control of the Internet domain system.

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Internet freedom is a bipartisan issue, but Congress is divided on how best to protect it. The House showed that early Friday by voting 229-178 to prohibit the government from using funds to relinquish its technical oversight role of the Internet domain system to a global, multi-stakeholder group in 2015.

Since 1997, the Commerce Department has controlled the root server for the domain name system, a digital directory that tells your computer where to go when you type in a Web address, including “.gov” or “.edu,” giving the U.S. potential – if hazy – ownership rights to the Internet. The Obama administration is seeking a way to pass that role to a global group to boost international collaboration on Internet freedom and innovation, but the administration announced that it will not accept a proposal that replaces the Commerce Department’s role with a government-led or an intergovernmental organization solution.

[READ: The U.S. Gives the Internet to the World]

Many Republicans in the House voted to block that plan by cutting its funding, passing an amendment to an appropriations bill Friday introduced by Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis. Despite the Commerce Department’s insistence that it will not allow an option that enables governments to dominate Internet policy, Duffy views the administration’s effort as a threat to online free speech.

“We should not give up our stewardship of the Internet so that the United Nations or countries like China or Russia, that do not hold free speech in the same regard, can have the opportunity to take control," Duffy said in his statement introducing the amendment in April.

Few Democrats voted for the amendment, and it is unlikely that the Democratic-controlled Senate would pass a similar motion, although Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has criticized the Obama administration’s plan. That power balance may change depending who wins seats in the 2014 midterm elections.

California Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman and Anna Eshoo wrote a joint letter to members ahead of the vote urging the House not to support Duffy’s amendment, warning that it would “greatly increase the likelihood of authoritarian control of the Internet.”

China and Russia led a coalition of countries to add a form of Internet regulation to a United Nations treaty on telecommunications in 2012, but the U.S. and UK led a group that refused to sign, out of concern that such regulation could threaten the free market and free speech of the global Internet.

By ceding control of Internet oversight, the Obama administration could strengthen U.S. ability to influence Internet freedom and make it “harder for opponents of a free and open Internet to pretend that what they are really against is an Internet dominated by one hegemonic state,” Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, said in a statement.

[OPINION: Internet Governance Should Remain in U.S. Hands]

Eshoo and Waxman have also been staunch advocates for the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality policy to ensure companies treat all online traffic equally. Many Republicans have opposed this policy over concerns that it would, like the domain name oversight shift, damage the free market and free speech of the Internet by enabling government to exert too much power over networks.

The new proposed net neutrality rules at the FCC have angered members of both parties. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is seeking public comment on the proposal designed to meet scrutiny by a January federal court ruling that struck down the 2010 rules. The FCC could vote on whether to enact final rules as early as September.

Democrats including Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vt., oppose the latest version of the rules, saying they think the rules could allow companies to charge higher payments for premium traffic speeds and thus permanently increase costs for the average cable customer.

The latest Republican opposition to the FCC rules came in a bill introduced Wednesday by Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, vice chairman of the House Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee, that would prevent the commission from regulating Internet providers like phone companies. Regulating Internet providers such as phone companies is an option the FCC is considering as it drafts the final version of its rules.

“The Internet has remained open and continues to be a powerful engine fueling private enterprise, economic growth and innovation absent government interference and obstruction,” Latta said in a statement introducing the bill.