WASHINGTON -- When the Commerce Department recently announced it wanted to move a key function of Internet administration over to international "stakeholders,'' Rep. Marsha Blackburn, like a number of House Republicans, went ballistic.
"We cannot let the Internet turn into another Russian land grab," the Brentwood representative said.
"America shouldn't surrender its leadership on the world stage to a 'multistakeholder model' that's controlled by foreign governments. It's imperative that this administration reports to Congress before they can take any steps that would turn over control of the Internet."
Likewise, Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indiana, said, "It is against our own national economic interest to relinquish control, especially without a clear path forward that will protect Internet freedom and American interests."
But some legal and technical experts say such remarks reflect the hyper-partisanship all too common in Washington these days, as well as a lack of understanding of how the Internet works.
"They are delusional," John Cary Sims, a law professor at the University of the Pacific and co-editor of the Journal of National Security Law and Policy, said in an interview.
"The Internet already depends on a high degree of international collaboration. We don't really control it to begin with."
And the Internet Governance Project, an alliance of academics on Internet policy, said: "The role of Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee revealed the confusion and inconsistency that underlies the conservative critique."
The Commerce Department made the same point. "There is no one party -- government or industry, including the United States government -- that controls the Internet. The Internet is a decentralized network of networks," it said in a statement.
All sides acknowledge, however, that the Internet was created by the U.S. Department of Defense.
And for the last 16 years, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a Southern California nonprofit -- under a contract with the Commerce Department -- has overseen a key part of it, the assignment of domain names. Those are what allow users to find websites with easy-to-remember words rather than long strings of numbers interspersed with periods.
In what some called a "bombshell," the Commerce Department said in March it wanted to begin a transition away from U.S. government stewardship of domain names and toward oversight by multi-national stakeholders, "including businesses, governments, technical experts, civil society groups and others."
The handoff would come in October 2015 when the current Commerce Department-ICANN contract expires.
The department added it wouldn't agree to any new system that didn't follow U.S. principles, including that no government or inter-governmental body, such as the United Nations, have control over domain names and other aspects of the Internet address system.
The proposed transition, which the department said was envisioned as far back as the 1990s, drew immediate praise from U.S. companies such as Google, Microsoft and Comcast, as well as from groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Computer and Communications Industry Association.
Edward Black, head of the Computer and Communications Association, said many around the world have become distrustful of the Internet due to U.S. snooping, as revealed by defector Edward Snowden. The best way to maintain its growth as an instrument for good, he said, is to make it clear the United States wants openness and doesn't intend to dominate.
"You do that by leading by example," he said in an interview.
But critics immediately equated the Commerce Department proposal with surrendering a product of American genius to authoritarian states like Russia and China, two countries that have bristled about the current system.
Blackburn, vice chairwoman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, immediately joined other GOP members in introducing legislation to prohibit any relinquishing of U.S. stewardship without congressional approval. During a hearing, she said there was "a low level of trust" about administration promises of Internet openness.
"The bottom line is that it's hard for many conservatives not to see the ICANN issue through the lens of a foreign policy which most of us feel is insufficiently assertive of American interests and values," added Jeffrey Eisenach, technology expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
"So, 'Don't worry, we're going to find another way to make sure free speech is advanced, free trade prevails, and U.S. interests are protected' isn't that convincing given our view of the track record."
But Black, head of the CCIA, noted at least one prominent Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus, has endorsed the Commerce Department's plans.
"But lawmakers who have not been as deeply involved in the details of Internet policy did not seem to understand why this was an adroit strategic move and called it a defeatist policy," he added in a recent op-ed piece.