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U.S. Plans to Relinquish IANA Contract in 2015 by Philip Corwin, Internet Commerce Association

Internet Commerce Association logoThe NTIA has just announced that it plans to turn its IANA functions contract counterparty role over to “the global multistakeholder community” when the current contract expires at the end of September 2015.

As for who exactly constitutes the global multistakeholder community – well that is to be left to a process that starts with ICANN convening  “global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition the current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS)”. It is not clear whether this means that ICANN should fulfill this role through its regular public meetings, through the NETmundial meeting that is being held at ICANN’s request next month in Sao Paulo, Brazil, or by other means.

Specific parties that NTIA wants ICANN to collaborate with in fashioning a transition plan include “the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the Internet Society (ISOC), the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), top level domain name operators, VeriSign, and other interested global stakeholders”.

Aside from the specific technical functions carried out pursuant to the IANA contract, its renewal has provided leverage that puts teeth into  the Affirmation of Commitments (AOC) entered into between ICANN and the U.S. in 2009. The AOC requires ICANN to have a process dedicated to improving its accountability and transparency, and also requires it to remain headquartered in the United States.

According to the press release:

NTIA has communicated to ICANN that the transition proposal must have broad community support and address the following four principles:

  • Support and enhance the multistakeholder model;
  • Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS;
  • Meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and,
  • Maintain the openness of the Internet.

Accountability and transparency, the continuation or replacement of the AOC, and remaining headquartered in the U.S. are all conspicuous in their absence from those principles – and that is worrisome.

It is somewhat heartening that the release notes that “NTIA will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution”. However, there is no reason to presume that this will be the final transition of IANA and ICANN control, or that the governments who favor multilateral over multistakeholder control will retreat from that position. The question then arises whether the new multistakeholder recipient of the IANA contract will be more vulnerable to a future UN, ITU, or another form of multilateral takeover once the U.S. has fully relinquished its role and disengaged from ICANN.

The NTIA release also appears to presume that relinquishing the IANA contract can be accomplished by the Executive Branch without any explicit authorization from Congress. However, that is an open legal question and groups that have concerns about this turnover may well encourage Congress to wade in. There is good reason to believe that if Congressional concerns are voiced they will be bipartisan.

Shortly after the NTIA made its announcement, ICANN issued its own press release stating that it had just “launched a process to transition the role of the United States Government relating to the Internet’s unique identifiers system”.

It continues:

“We are inviting governments, the private sector, civil society, and other Internet organizations from the whole world to join us in developing this transition process,” said Fadi Chehadé, ICANN’s President and CEO. “All stakeholders deserve a voice in the management and governance of this global resource as equal partners.”

It is not at all clear whether this transition process will build upon the existing 1NET and Cross-Constituency Working Group (CCWG) processes launched in the wake of last fall’s Montevideo Statement and ICANN’s request for Brazil to host the NETmundial meeting, or will add yet another layer on top of those ongoing efforts. Many of ICANN’s stakeholders are already complaining of being overwhelmed by the effort required to just keep up with events and prepare statements for submission to the Brazil meeting’s organizers by the just-expired March 8th deadline.

Leaders of the Internet technical organizations responsible for coordination of the Internet infrastructure also issued a statement welcoming the U.S. announcement. Yet a review of these organizations makes clear that ICANN is by far the dominant member in terms of staffing and ever-growing financial resources. This raises the possibility that , if these groups are determined to constitute “the global multistakeholder community”  ICANN will essentially be placed in charge of overseeing itself, and that the transition will actually amount to effectively handing the contract over to ICANN. That in turn could erode accountability while making ICANN a more attractive target for future multilateral takeover.

The upcoming ICANN meeting in Singapore was already expected to be dominated by the events initiated in Montevideo last October. This latest announcement will just reinforce that focus, even though ICANN is in the midst of the biggest and perhaps riskiest venture in its history – the ongoing rollout of more than one thousand new gTLDs.

ICA will be present in Singapore and will seek to ensure that, however events unfold, the Internet remains friendly to entrepreneurial business models, including those of domain investors and developers.

The press statements referred to in this post are below:

This article by Philip Corwin from the Internet Commerce Association was sourced with permission from: