Commerce will likely have to extend IANA contract

An ambitious deadline to transition U.S. control over a key piece of global Internet architecture to an international multi-stakeholder group will likely not be met.

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An ambitious deadline to transition U.S. control over a key piece of global Internet architecture to an international multi-stakeholder group will likely not be met. The U.S. currently controls the core address book of the Internet – the root zone file that maps web addresses in top level domains (like .com and .uk).

The IANA function (short for Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) is in the process of being devolved from the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, a Commerce Department component, to a global group constituted of stakeholders in the technology community. The move has been planned for about 17 years, but accelerated in March 2014, when NTIA head Larry Strickling announced plans to convene an international process to decide what kind of entity would take over for the U.S. as the trustee for global Internet.

The current IANA contract, held by the U.S.-based nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, expires Sept. 30, 2015. It seems increasingly likely, based on comments from participants in the process, that the U.S. will have to renew the IANA contract, because the transition won't be wrapped up by then.

Legislation backed by Republicans on the  House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee might delay the transition further. The DOTCOM Act of 2015 would put off the transition for up to a year after the completion of a final proposal, until the Government Accountability Office weighs in on the advantages of any transition plan agreed to by the NTIA and the global multi-stakeholder community.

Appropriators are also getting into the act. The just-released bill that funds the Commerce Department contains a policy rider prohibiting the use of appropriated funds to "relinquish the responsibility of [the NTIA] with respect to Internet domain name system functions, including responsibility with respect to the authoritative root zone file and the [IANA] functions." NTIA currently operates under a similar rider, although apparently it has not affected the ability of NTIA to participate in the transition process that is underway.

DOTCOM Act sponsor Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and others are concerned about the possibility that foreign governments like Russia and China, who have in the past sought to have the Internet address function moved to the International Telecommunication Union at the United Nations, could end up with influence or control over the entity administering the IANA function. Once the transition takes place, the U.S. will give up influence over the direction of the global Internet.

"We will lose the oversight that we have today," Shimkus said at a May 13 hearing of the subcommittee.

Strickling and other officials have said they won't agree to any process that includes ceding control to a government-based group. NTIA's report on its work to transition IANA stewardship maintains that "we will not accept a transition proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution."

Waiting for a GAO report could stall the process – a concern for some Democrats who have not signed onto the DOTCOM Act. Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice and policy chair for the ICANN Business Constituency said that "the right plan is to take those risks and implications you've asked for from the GAO and surface those into the process."

The other concern is that a legislative check late in the game could defeat the U.S. aims of a smooth transition. "It will look like an attempt to substitute the U.S. government's judgment for that of the global multi-stakeholder community, which could undermine U.S. credibility in the process," said Danielle Kehl, a policy analyst at the liberal New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.

Planning for the transition includes a series of stress tests to map out what might happen to the key IANA function in the event that hostile governments attempt to capture the stakeholder process, or the administering group becomes financially insolvent. DelBianco said that proposed changes to the ICANN bylaws include the ability of independent review panels made up of private sector and non-governmental stakeholders to review board decisions and recall board members.

"This transition is the best opportunity to pursue difficult and sometimes controversial changes to ensure that ICANN is accountable to the entire community it was created to serve. By the same token, this transition is the last opportunity for the U.S. government to use its leverage to get ICANN to accept and implement the community’s proposed accountability enhancements," DelBianco noted in his written testimony.

DelBianco said that by his estimates, ICANN will be finished with its work by the fall of 2016.

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