The announcement on March 14, 2014, by the National Telecommunications and Information Authority (NTIA) of the United States Department of Commerce, that it intends to transfer the IANA function to the global multistakeholder community is welcome — but a tall order. It is no secret that both the US government, ICANN, and the global Internet community have argued and worked tirelessly for the past 15 odd years on the vexing issue of globalizing the US government's role in the IANA function. Despite the desire, long-held by many, for the US to relinquish its control of the IANA function, it is clear that getting to full multistakeholder control of the function is not going to be easy.
The good news
According to the NTIA it intends to "transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community," and is asking ICANN to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal for transitioning its current role in the coordination of the domain name system (DNS).
NTIA currently contracts ICANN to conduct the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions, while Verisign performs related root zone management functions under the auspices of a Cooperative Agreement with the NTIA.
NTIA also said that the transition proposal must have broad community support, and be based on four principles: a) a multistakeholder approach, b) ensuring the security, stability and resilience of the DNS, c) meeting the needs and expectations of IANA services customers and partners, and d) the maintenance of an Open Internet. The NTIA said that its announcement is in keeping with bipartisan resolutions from the US Senate and House of Representatives affirming US support for the multistakeholder Internet governance. As such, the NTIA said it will not accept a proposal for NTIA's current role in the management of the DNS to be taken over by a government- or an inter-governmental organization-led arrangement.
The NTIA statement concludes by reaffirming that the US government's commitment to private sector leadership of the DNS management dates back to its 1998 Policy Paper. Furthermore, it said, that ICANN has now matured and has improved its accountability, transparency, and technical competence, while the multistakeholder model of Internet governance now has significant international support. NTIA concluded that its current role will continue while ICANN leads preparations for the transition, and that the current IANA functions contract ends in 2015.
The NTIA announcement has been met with enthusiasm around the world. The technical community (IETF, IAB, RIRs, ccTLD ROs, ICANN, ISOC, and W3C) welcomed the NTIA announcement, and pledged their commitment to use their community-driven processes to move the transition in an open, multi-stakeholder-driven manner.
Among civil society organizations, the APC welcomed the decision but notes its implementation will be dogged by significant challenges, including making it inclusive, and ensuring that decisions about the DNS and management of the root protect the "broadest possible public interest." ITU welcomed the announcement, and expressed its support for multistakeholder-based Internet governance free from regulation by government or inter-governmental organizations. ITU also expressed concern that the transition plan should be inclusive and involve developing countries. Similarly, the EU Commission said they will work with the US and global stakeholders to implement the globalization of the IANA functions an accountable and transparent process that will ensure an open Internet that respects human rights.
ICANN welcomed the announcement, amid reports of dissension among Republican members of congress. On the same day the NTIA announced its intention, ICANN announced the launch of its effort to shepherd a global, multistakeholder-driven transition process. Indeed, the consultations have started, with two sessions at its ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore.
Verisign issued a statement clarifying that the NTIA announcement does not impact their .com and .net business, and that their Cooperative Agreement with the NTIA is for a public service. Despite this, their stock took a drubbing on the stock market. Other industry leaders supporting the NTIA announcement include Afilias, and Neustar.
Getting to globalization
Despite the largely positive reactions to the NTIA announcement, it is clear a lot of work will need to be done to implement it. Although the NTIA says that the transition proposal must be developed by a multistakeholder process, the stakeholders it mentions (IETF, IAB, ISOC, top level domain name operators, VeriSign) are largely dominated by US entities or are, like ICANN, US-based, and subject to US laws. Thus, there is serious need to get more non-Americans involvement in the process, and an expansion of the consultation beyond ICANN's usual platforms. The challenge, then, would be to develop a truly global consultation that equally results in a truly global new order, and not just a repositioning of US players.
Although the NTIA statement does not explicitly state that ICANN should be the body to take over the IANA function, we are all being prepared for just that. The headline of ICANN's press release on the NTIA announcement reads thus: "Administrator of the Domain Name System Launches Global Multistakholder Accountability Process." This is probably the first time ICANN has addressed itself as the administrator of the DNS, and I expect that from now on out, that is the message they will drum into our heads.
It is worth noting that the NTIA announcement leaves out the Cooperative Agreement with Verisign which covers the root zone management functions. While the Questions and Answers paper on the NTIA announcement acknowledges that the root zone management functions are closely related to the IANA functions, NTIA would have to "coordinate a related and parallel transition" for the root zone management functions.
The latest amendment of the Cooperative Agreement with Verisign is to end in 2018, meaning that any transition to a more globalized management of the root zone management functions might have to wait until 2018, at the earliest. This issue is important because a continuation of the Cooperative Agreement with Verisign would spell a modicum of US control, and counter efforts to achieve a complete globalization of ICANN and the IANA function.
And is ICANN ready to take the lead in efforts to shape the transition? Although the NTIA has recognized ICANN as being ready to lead the transition effort, and ICANN has launched the global dialog on the transition, all of this is happening shortly after significant changes in the structure of ICANN's board. Last November, the ICANN board in one fell swoop "decommissioned" its global relations, public and stakeholder engagement (PSEC), and IANA committees. While on the ICANN board, I served on the IANA and global relations committees, and on the PSEC's predecessor, the public participation committee, and I am sure they could have made significant contributions to ICANN's capacity to manage the transition process.
NTIA also says it will not accept a transition of its role in the IANA function to government-led solution, or to an inter-governmental organization. This is a unilateral definition of the bounds of discussions about the transition, and might be construed as an infringement of the right to free speech. Furthermore, the condition imposed might be seen as an attempt to ensure that at the end of the day, control will rest firmly in the hands of a US-based organization (i.e. ICANN. In other words, we might end up with de jure US-control, legitimized by a global consultation that was designed in the first place to ensure the US does not lose the very control it says it wants to give up. Besides, what right does one government have to restrict the role of other governments in the globalization of a global common good that affects the lives of their citizens?
Another important challenge that the Internet community will face during the development of the transition proposal is to ensure a process that is inclusive, especially of developing countries. This issue was raised in statements by the ITU, and the APC regarding the NTIA statement, and is particularly acute against the backdrop of the dismal participation of developing countries in ICANN's new gTLD program, in Internet governance issues, as well as in various ICANN activities. It will be a real tragedy if developing countries are, once again, prevented from contributing to the building of an Internet for the benefit of all humanity.
As I said at the 2011 ICANN 41 meeting in Singapore, and the 2011 IGF in Nairobi, Kenya: the world is only a better place if it's better for everyone, and not for the privileged few. I hope we all remember that as we move forward in the transition process.
Written by Katim S. Touray, International Development Consultant, and ICT for development advocate
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