Governing the Net: wake me up when September ends
2015 is set to be a historic year for Internet governance. If all goes to plan in nine months a fresh, accountable, and independent ICANN will be born. On 30 September 2015, what should be the last contract between the US Department of Commerce (DoC) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is set to expire and the symbolic vestiges, or what some countries call the hegemony, of US government oversight over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions is set to end. But there’s a caveat—the international multistakeholder community must first collectively agree to a transition plan that not only enhances ICANN accountability, but also adheres to four core DoC principles and tiptoes around Washington politics. With time running short the question is whether the international community can be a successful midwife to the IANA transition.
Today, 15 January, the domain names, number resources, and protocol parameters operational communities are set to submit their proposals to the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG). The ICG will then be responsible for assembling the component parts into a single proposal to present to the DoC National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), with a submission target of July 2015. In September the transition will be completed and in October ICANN will celebrate the success in Dublin. Sweet. IANA transition done and dusted.
Of course, things won’t be that simple.
An Internet Governance Project review of comments on the December domain names community working group draft proposal has identified a slew of notable challenges. While most respondents (67 percent) agreed that IANA functions shouldn’t simply be absorbed into ICANN, that’s where agreement ended on the proposed four new bodies to fill in for the role of NTIA. Unsurprisingly, ICANN itself—and it’s not alone—disagrees with the need for any new outside body, arguing that ‘ICANN was purpose-built to be the permanent home of the IANA functions’.
Presuming the compilation of proposals and public comment periods go to plan—a big presumption indeed—the IANA transition plan will be in the hands of NTIA by July. That leaves two months for DoC to evaluate and ‘stress test’ the proposal before the IANA contract expires. A challenging but technically not impossible timeline.
Where things really begin to unravel are with the effort to enhance ICANN accountability which is running parallel to the IANA stewardship transition. As things stand, stream one of the accountability efforts are set to be completed in August, already deferred from a June target. While ICANN has made efforts to decouple the two processes a sizable portion of the Internet community sees the two as intrinsically linked, and more importantly, US Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Strickland has unequivocally stated that the efforts are ‘directly linked’ and ‘both issues must be addressed before any transition takes place.’
Frankly, this is an unrealistic timeline. ICANN is pushing hard to meet those dates, but in doing so is undermining confidence in the multistakeholder model it represents. By nature bottom-up, consensus-driven processes are slow going and rushing those efforts isn’t likely to yield a true vision of the Internet community and even less likely to satisfy the NTIA scrutiny.
This artificial timeline is self-destructive, spurring a trust-deficit between the community and ICANN; Verisign, the dot-com registry and root server operator, has openly questioned ICANN’s technical competence. ICANN’s ongoing attempt to roll out the half-baked and highly controversial NetMundial Initiative in time for Davos are chipping away at the legitimacy of both the organisation and the process.
At the same time, a hostile Congress is setting up roadblocks left,right and centre, removing funding for NTIA’s transition efforts, requiring NTIA to report to Congress 45 days prior to any changes to its IANA role, and requesting that the top government watchdog, the Government Accountability Office investigate.
While not ideal, Secretary Strickland has made clear that the option to extend the DoC–ICANN contract is on the table. A rushed and poorly-formed transition plan will be attacked from both sides. ICANN should take a step back and recommit to the slow but effective multistakeholder process, rather than focusing on artificial deadlines.When toying with the technical infrastructure behind the Internet, it’s more important to get it done right than done fast.