On March 14, 2014, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced that it did not intend to renew its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which since 1998 has managed policy and technical features of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS). However, the NTIA stated it would not withdraw from the process until an acceptable alternative mechanism is developed that supported the existing multi-stakeholder model; adequately met the technical requirements of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA); did not undermine the freedom of the Internet; and maintained the security, stability, and resilience of the DNS. Additionally, the NTIA stated that it “will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”
Although some discount it, the U.S. contractual arrangement has served as a deterrent against ICANN decisions that could harm the freedom, vitality, stability, or security of the Internet. Specifically, ICANN has had an incentive to reject such decisions out of concern that the IANA contract would be awarded to an alternative institution. Thus, when the NTIA relinquishes its contractual oversight role, we must replace it with accountability measures that exercise equally effective restraint on the potential for harmful actions and decisions by ICANN.
ICANN, after significant urging from the Internet community, has decided to embrace a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder process to develop a proposal for an oversight replacement. While the decision to involve the broader community is a significant improvement, the process remains based on two flawed assumptions.
First, ICANN intends to address NTIA demands for the transition along two tracks: one involving the transition of the technical naming functions in a stable and secure manner, and the other for the development of accountability measures for ICANN’s broader policymaking role. This is appropriate, although the two issues should be resolved in tandem and not proceed unless both are resolved in a manner that satisfies the concerns of the multi-stakeholder community and the U.S.
This is where concerns arise. ICANN’s role as a policymaker for the critical functioning of the network is far more important and controversial than the much more defined and narrow technical role—and it is also the area where there should be greater concern for ICANN’s actions. The Accountability Cross Community Working Group’s draft charter envisions that accountability measures would be pursued in two streams: those that “must be in place or committed to within the time frame of the IANA Stewardship Transition,” and those that can be addressed after the transition. Given the compressed time line it is very likely that only the easier and less controversial accountability measures will be agreed to and implemented before the transition occurs. Once the transition occurs, the leverage over ICANN to accept more controversial, but critical, accountability measures weakens dramatically. It is critical that all of the necessary accountability measures be negotiated and implemented while this leverage remains in place.
Second, the schedule for developing new ICANN accountability measures is built around the expectation that the current NTIA contract with ICANN will expire as scheduled on September 15, 2015. This time line is extremely aggressive, with a final proposal expected to be delivered by July 2015. As noted by legal expert Philip Corwin, who specializes in intellectual property and domain name matters, previous working groups addressing less critical matters have taken much longer periods to arrive at their conclusions.
A matter of this significance should merit serious consideration by Congress and the Administration, which is not allowed by this truncated time line, especially since the NTIA must inform ICANN at least 30 days prior to the expiry of the current contract if it intends to exercise the option to extend the contract. When pressed, both Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling and ICANN CEO Fade Chehade confirmed that the September 2015 date was a goal, not a deadline. Sincere or not, it is the proper perspective on this issue.
Those seriously concerned about the transition should insist that all necessary accountability measures developed by the multi-stakeholder model are defined, agreed to, and substantially implemented before the technical transition occurs. If that insistence requires exercising one or both of the two-year options to extend the current contract, so be it. The Internet is too important to get this process wrong.