'What's the problem we're trying to fix?'

NTIA still faces headwinds in Congress about Internet domain control.

Shutterstock image: global network of information sharing.

The federal government is in the late stages of relinquishing control over the Domain Name System that is a key function of the infrastructure of the Internet. The U.S. contract to operate Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions, essentially an address book that maps numeric nodes on the Internet to web addresses, expires Sept. 30, 2015.

The plan is for the U.S. to cede control over these functions to a non-governmental, multi-stakeholder group -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Name and Numbers, which administers the IANA functions on behalf of the National Telecommunications and Information Agency. This includes the assignment of top-level domains like .com and those belonging to individual countries, like .ca for Canada or .es for Spain.

Right now, the NTIA must approve changes to the DNS root zone file that governs top-level web addresses. For example, if any country wants to change a national domain or add a new domain for a semi-autonomous region, that request ultimately goes to the NTIA.

Some in Congress are concerned that the U.S. is moving too quickly in its plan to relinquish control over the IANA, and the debate was resumed Feb. 25 at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing.

While the U.S. has planned since 1998 to privatize the IANA functions, it wasn't until March 2014 that NTIA announced a timeline for doing so. Republican opponents of the plan responded with a policy rider in the current NTIA appropriation that restricts the agency from using funds to turn over the IANA functions during fiscal 2015. This doesn't necessarily put the brakes on NTIA's plans, but it does require the agency to be attentive to members of Congress who are leery of the transition.

The fear on the part of opponents is that ceding control over the IANA function is the first step toward greater control over the architecture and infrastructure of the global Internet by repressive governments. Russia, China, and Iran, for example, are leading proponents of plans to put IANA functions and other Internet controls under the authority of the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency.

This is a non-starter for the U.S. As Administrator Larry Strickling said in his testimony, "NTIA explicitly stated that it would not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution."

Despite these assurances, there are suspicions of devolving a U.S. authority to an unspecified international entity, particularly when, from a technical point of view, the IANA functions work properly. As Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) put it in the hearing, "What's the problem we're trying to fix?"

According to Strickling, U.S. control over these Internet functions, even in what he calls a "limited and clerical fashion," helps breed ill will in the developing world. At a 2012 ITU conference, about 80 countries signed on to plans to give the United Nations a bigger role in running the Internet.

"Part of the impetus for this was at that time, the continued irritation that many governments feel, which has been exploited by the authoritarian countries, that the United States with this special role with ICANN is in a position to control the Internet in these developing countries, and to turn it off in these countries, and to otherwise interfere with the ability of these countries to manage their own affairs with respect to the Internet," Strickling said. The 2014 ITU meeting, held in the wake of the NTIA announcement to devolve the IANA function to an international, multi-stakeholder group, produced a consensus that the UN would not expand its authority to include Internet governance issues.

There's no deadline for the transition. But ICANN has convened an IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group that has a schedule based on the Sept. 30 IANA contract expiration. This includes delivering a proposal by late July for how the NTIA role in providing oversight of the administration of the IANA functions will work in a successor organization. The group plans to test early versions of the proposal to make sure the current system can function from a technical standpoint, to insert changes into the root zone file.

That's a lot to accomplish in a few short months. NTIA can unilaterally extend the IANA contract for four years, in two year increments. And Strickling noted that there might be more flexibility to extend the contract without invoking the two-year options.

"Between the contracting parties, ICANN and the United States, we can mutually agree to an extension of a shorter period. And we'll certainly take a look at that, if and when we have to look at an extension," he said.

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