At the center of the debate is a service known as IANA, or the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. Operating almost entirely out of the public eye, IANA keeps tabs on the numerical directory that makes sure the global Internet runs smoothly. In the Internet's early days, that numbering job was run by a University of Southern California professor out of his office. IANA was later established as a formal service, and the U.S. Department of Commerce was given the role of overseeing its operations. The plan, though, was always for the U.S. to give up that role once the Internet got on its feet.
But some congressional Republicans are worried that the Obama administration is in danger of handing over an essential Internet function to an unpredictable global community. And so the spending bill contains this passage:
None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to relinquish the responsibility of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration during fiscal year 2015 with respect to Internet domain name system functions, including responsibility with respect to the authoritative root zone file and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority functions.
But those familiar with the process point out a flaw in the tactic: The Commerce Department's IANA contract does not run out until fiscal 2016 and a measure in a fiscal 2015 appropriations bill won't affect the handover. Also, nothing in the bill stops the agency from taking steps to simply end the contract.
What's more, Congress doesn't have oversight over the place where the real IANA action is taking place. ICANN, the California-based non-profit that oversees Internet governance all over the world, began the formal process for the transition of the numbering contract away from the Department of Commerce earlier this month. In short, the Republican Congress can't force the United States to keep control over the Internet because the U.S. doesn't have all that much control over the Internet to begin with.
Republican worries are centered on the idea that the Obama administration is at risk of ceding at least one part of how the Internet works to other countries; instead of the U.S.-protected so-called "multi-stakeholder" model where engineers and other technologists call the shots, the thinking goes, this new approach could end up with governments without a demonstrated commitment to freedom of expression deciding how the Internet operates.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), for example, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post in mid-November that "we should dismiss all plans to give nations hostile to human rights and democracy more influence over Internet policy." He went on, "The likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Chinese President Xi Jinping should not dictate what can be read, written, distributed, bought and sold on the Internet."
The argument on the other side? That the Commerce Department contract is simply a historical artifact, and its oversight an obscure job the U.S. no longer has to do. Giving it up is a way of usefully put distance between the United States and the Internet's operations -- particularly in the wake of disclosures about National Security Agency observation of digital traffic -- without the U.S. losing any meaningful powers.
Spending bill or no, that debate will rage on -- proof of the old political adage that appropriations process is a messy place to try to make public policy, and perhaps no more so than when it comes to the Internet's intensely wonky operations.