The Domain Name System (DNS) is crucial for the ability of the Internet to be networked globally – it is the address book that matches numerical IP addresses with computers connected to the Internet. When you type the name of a website into your browser, the name can be translated into numbers that send you to the website’s location. In order for the Internet to work, someone has to make sure that names and numbers are coordinated in a way so that devices have their own unique identifiers, that a certain website name always leads to the same place, and that different devices can communicate with one another. Currently, that someone is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California nonprofit designed in the 1990s. ICANN performs the first part of a set of tasks, known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority or IANA functions. The US Department of Commerce has awarded a contract to perform the IANA functions to ICANN since 1998, when the Internet’s increasing size and scope dictated the creation of an organization that could manage this important task. By virtue of this contract, the US government has been a steward of the DNS; it is the only entity able to act as an oversight mechanism, ensuring that the IANA functions continue to run smoothly.
Since the inception of ICANN, the US government has always planned to transition oversight of the IANA functions to a private-sector-led organization that could better adapt to the increasingly global, rapidly changing nature of the Internet. True to this goal, Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling announced in March 2014 that the Department of Commerce would allow its IANA functions contract to expire if an appropriate transition plan was put in place by September 30, 2015. In this transition, the US government would vacate its position as an institutional overseer of the backbone operations of this specific aspect of the Internet. The government’s position has always been that a suitable plan that protects the future of the Internet and that ensures that ICANN remains accountable and transparent must be in place in order for the transition to occur.
Since last year’s announcement however, many of us who monitor ICANN have worried about the IANA functions contract being dissolved before the accountability and transparency structure of ICANN has been assured. Due to the importance of the IANA functions to the core existence of the current Internet infrastructure and the digital global economy, it is critical that the IANA functions remain in capable and accountable hands.
To achieve this goal, hundreds of individuals from civil society, academic institutions, governments, businesses, and technical network operators serve on working groups, support organizations, and advisory councils to ensure that a multi-stakeholder model continues to be the way in which decisions regarding Internet governance are made. To quell concerns about accountability of ICANN these groups of individuals are working hard to create a much stronger international safety net that will assure that the Internet will have many guardians instead of just one government.
By using a multi-stakeholder governance model, the different parties that have a stake in the Internet will watch over these important functions. Both Republican and Democratic administrations, as well as the US Congress, have historically agreed that the multi-stakeholder model is the best way to make decisions related to Internet governance. Additionally, The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a part of the Department of Commerce, has said it will not go through with the IANA transition unless ICANN develops a plan for that transition that (1) supports and enhances the multi-stakeholder model; (2) maintains the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS; (3) meets the needs and expectations of global customers and partners of the IANA services; and (4) maintains the openness of the Internet. NTIA also specified (0) that it would not accepted a proposal that replaced its role with a different government-led or intergovernmental solution.
Under the current model, adding a new record or making changes to an existing record happens in three steps: notification, verification, and implementation. ICANN coordinates the notification to add to or amend the unique identifiers, NTIA performs the verification step, and Verisign edits and implements the changes. This “triangle of trust” exists for a reason: while you do not necessarily need three parties to be involved, this separation on functions allows for transparency and a “trust but verify” point of validation. This keeps the multi-stakeholder community engaged and gives them the ability to oversee the health of the core Internet network operations. The “triangle of trust” keeps both the technical natives and the policy/political wonks comfortable with the IANA process.
Unfortunately, news came this past week (1) that ICANN staff may be ignoring the work currently underway to ensure that ICANN has sufficient accountability and transparency once the Department of Commerce contract expires and NTIA exits its current oversight role. Reportedly, “[someone at] ICANN has verbally represented that they will reject any proposed agreement in which ICANN is not deemed the sole source prime contractor for the IANA functions in perpetuity.” This destroys the “triangle of trust” and runs contrary to the spirit of using the multi-stakeholder community model as the place to cross-coordinate policymaking on the functionality of the Internet’s core protocol functions.
A lot of time and effort has gone into preserving the multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance, and most of ICANN’s staff have been working alongside various multi-stakeholder groups to make sure the transition is a success. We need to give these working groups the time needed to develop the right measures to strengthen ICANN’s accountability and transparency. If this current process is done with credibility, it will withstand the scrutiny of those in the global community who question ICANN and its ability to serve the international community. ICANN should not try to monopolize the IANA function; it has to prove to the world that it can run the core functions of the Internet successfully and with a high level of cooperation.
Once a suitable accountability structure is in place, ICANN can be given the independence it desires, and oversight can move away from one government and towards the global community. Any transition process should recognize the “backstop” function currently provided by the US government and replace it with a multi-stakeholder accountability function that can ensure ICANN’s stability and legitimacy moving forward. Once this global safety net is established, the IANA functions should be the next big item up for discussion, but not before then.