Don’t Let Domestic Politics Derail the NTIA Transition

Several weeks ago, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that it intends to transition its domain name system-related responsibilities and stewardship role to the global multistakeholder community. While the announcement has been welcomed as an expected and natural evolution of Internet governance mechanisms by many in the US and around the world, it has also triggered loud outcry from some politicians in the US. Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on “Ensuring the Security, Stability, Resilience, and Freedom of the Global Internet” to discuss the potential impact of the proposed transition.

CDT joined other human rights organizations in a letter to the committee expressing support for the NTIA’s intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community. CDT believes that this transition is an important part of the evolution and strengthening of multistakeholder governance of the Internet. However, CDT has also warned that the transition does hold some substantial risk. In the process of ending US oversight of some elements of the domain name system, we must not open that system to interference by other governments. It’s still early in the transition process, but so far no one has articulated precisely how to protect the Internet from other governments.

Recognizing these risks, NTIA has identified several criteria that any successor must meet: the new system must have broad support; enhance the open, decentralized, bottom­up, multistakeholder model; maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet’s domain name system; and maintain the openness of the Internet. These criteria will be essential guides for the transition; until they are met, the transition should not occur. Perhaps most crucially, the NTIA has clearly stated that it will not accept any government-driven or intergovernmental approach as a replacement for the role it currently performs.

While NTIA has asked ICANN to serve as the convener for the process to develop the transition plan, there should be no assumption that ICANN will ultimately step into the oversight role the NTIA holds. As we emphasized in our comments to ICANN on its convening role, it’s important that the process not be prejudiced and that any proposal for ICANN to assume oversight of these functions must be assessed according to the criteria laid out above, and on an equal basis with other proposals. ICANN, or any other entity that seeks to assume full stewardship of these functions, needs to demonstrate that it is immune from government (or other stakeholder) interference and operates according to open, bottom-up, consensus-driven processes. Further, any such entity must be bound by accountability mechanisms that ensure that these essential operational characteristics cannot be altered at the whim of changing organizational leadership.

It’s not clear whether today’s Energy and Commerce Committee hearing (or next week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing) will delve into these important issues or devolve into political grandstanding. Likely on the docket is the newly introduced House bill entitled “Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act of 2014.” This bill would prohibit the NTIA from relinquishing responsibility over the Internet domain name system pending a report by the Comptroller General, who would have up to a year to produce an assessment of the pros and cons of the transition and an evaluation of any proposals. The DOTCOM Act was accompanied by vigorous warnings from its sponsors and supporters who suggested that “turning over control of the Internet” would help Internet-unfriendly governments to further clamp down on free speech.

While we share the sponsors’ goal of ensuring that the Internet remains an open platform for freedom of expression that operates free of government control, this bill is probably not the right way to achieve it. Attempts by the US Congress to enact a law prohibiting the operation of global, consensus-based, multistakeholder decision-making about key questions of Internet governance sends exactly the wrong message, encouraging those countries who believe that the Internet should be controlled by governments, just not the US. For years, the NTIA’s oversight role – which has been largely hands-off and administrative in nature – has been a sticking point in Internet governance debates, with some asserting it as evidence of US “control” over the Internet. Some governments argue that this “control” of the global network should be transferred to an inter-governmental body, which could have truly negative consequences for Internet freedom. Efforts that sound like they are protecting US “control” of the Internet lend misplaced legitimacy to the argument that the Internet should be subject to government control in the first place.

The transition of the NTIA’s oversight function has been long anticipated by the US and by the global multistakeholder community. Now, that community – which includes engineers, industry, human rights advocates, Internet technical organizations such as IETF and the Regional Internet Registries, and yes, governments – must come together to ensure that the next evolution of this function is entrusted to a multistakeholder entity that is transparent, truly consensus-driven, and accountable not to one or even many governments, but to the global community. The overarching principle that must guide this process, as the NTIA itself has noted, is that no government should have the final say on matters of Internet governance.

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