The US government appeared unlikely to give up its oversight of the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers in the near future, following a recent hearing at the Department of Commerce.
But John Kneuer, acting assistant secretary at the DoC, did say that the US does still intend to cut some of its ties to ICANN, which coordinates management of the internet’s domain name system and IP address pool, at some point in future.
ICANN’s powers and responsibilities have their roots in a 1998 memorandum of understanding with the DoC, which has been amended five times since.
It expires in September, and both parties have said it is the final MoU. So the DoC held a public hearing to solicit input on what should happen next.
The core question was whether ICANN is mature and stable enough to go fully independent from the US, or whether such a move would be unacceptably risky to the internet and key stakeholders.
The answers to this question, from two panels of experts from commercial and non-commercial organizations, were mixed and nuanced.
But when one of the five-person panels was asked directly whether the ICANN has made sufficient progress to go independent in September, four out of five panelists said no, although they all seemed to support independence further in the future.
We strongly feel issues of transparency, openness and representation need to be addressed before we can consider tasks and milestones to have been met, David McGuire from the Center for Democracy and Technology said.
ICANN, a small Los Angeles-based non-profit, is frequently accused of being too opaque, making its most important decisions in private meetings that are not fully or speedily documented afterwards.
The MoU needs to continue, said Michael Heltzer from the International Trademark Association. There are goals… that still need to be accomplished before the handoff can take place.
INTA’s main concern is trademark infringement in domain names. It wants a strong Whois system, that reveals the names of domain registrants, and it wants ICANN to be able to enforce policies against infringements by registrars.
Bill Graham from the Canadian government and David Fares of the US Council for International Business both said they believed ICANN was not quite ready to be untied from the US just yet.
David Maher, of the Public Internet Registry, which runs .org, was the only panelist to say ICANN had made sufficient progress under the MoU, but that came with caveats.
We need to turn the new MoU, or whatever you want to call it, into one that turns ICANN into a coordinating entity, not a controlling entity, he said.
Following the meeting, the DoC’s Kneuer told the Los Angeles Times: There certainly are still strong arguments that there’s more work to be done. He indicated the deadline would be extended beyond September, the newspaper reported.
An earlier panel was on balance more in favor of a speedy divorce.
Ray Plzak of ARIN, which manages IP address in North America, said on behalf of the Number Resource Organization that it believes the MoU should not be renewed. He added: In other words, the transition should continue along its path.
Lynn St Amour of the Internet Society was even more critical of the US government’s continued role in overseeing ICANN.
We believe it’s time move to a minimal transitional MoU, where the US government plays a backstop role, where it only comes into play in the event of a serious organizational failure, she said. We continue to be concerned about attempts to politicize the internet and its management, and as long as the US has its role in ICANN governance, organizations and other governments have the incentive to try to leverage political channels to their favor.
Tim Ruiz from Go Daddy Group Inc, the largest registrar, was the dissenting voice on this panel, urging DoC not to set ICANN free until it has matured further.
We believe it is premature to consider actually ending the MoU, so we are requesting some extension of the MoU be made, he said. Events over the last year or year and a half have seen some confidence shaken in ICANN, in how open and transparent it is in its practices in regards board decisions and staff practices.
Go Daddy is a frequent critic of ICANN’s activity as it related to the awarding of registry contracts and the apparently lack of contract enforcement against registrars that Go Daddy perceives to be abusive.
Emily Taylor from Nominet, the UK registry, Suzanne Woolf of the Internet Systems Consortium, a root server operator, both also came out in favor of a speedy transition to an independent ICANN during the hearing.
Cutting ICANN loose in September could be seen as a risky proposition for the US, which last year fought hard to prevent the United Nations from muscling in on its oversight function.
Making ICANN independent before it is stable enough to remain independent long-term runs the risk of something similar happening in future, with potentially an outcome less favorable to US interests.
We don’t believe that it’s time to end the MoU, we don’t believe that it’s time to end the US special role in the internet management process, CDT’s McGuire said. We certainly don’t think the US government having a special role is an ideal situation, but in terms of realist alternatives at this point in time we think it’s the best of some potentially unappealing options.
Still Kneuer acknowledged that the US does remain committed to letting ICANN go at some point.
That has been the policy since ICANN was formed by the Clinton administration in 1998, but the DoC did shake confidence in that policy continuing last year, when it unveiled four principles under which it would treat its relationship to the DNS and IP address pools.
One of those principles was that the US is committed to taking no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.
This left open to question the possibility that the US would not set ICANN free at all. But Kneuer has clarified that the policy relates only to the so-called IANA functions that ICANN executes under a contract that is separate to the MoU.
The historic role that we announced that we were going to preserve is fairly clearly articulated, Kneuer said. It is the technical verification and authorization of changes to the authoritative root. That is a function of IANA, that is limited, extraordinarily technical in nature, and very explicitly tied to security and stability.
What the US is essentially saying is that it will continue to have the final word on what changes are made to the DNS’s root server system. Such changes could include the change of ownership of a country code domain like .uk or .jp, or the introduction of a new domain like .xxx or .mobi.
Kneuer’s statement could calm concerns that the US would continue to have full oversight over ICANN indefinitely. But whether it would satisfy the US’s international critics, some of which see the US’s unique role as an affront to their sovereignty, remains to be seen.
One international perspective on the panel came from Canada’s Graham. He said: We would welcome a statement that while the US government will definitely retain authority over the IANA function, it will open up the process by which it exercises that authority.
For example, it could say it would restrict the exercise of that authority to situations where it is essentially to preserve the technical stability and security of the DNS, he said.