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Goodbye NTIA, hello…?

Last Friday, the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced plans to transition its oversight of key technical coordination functions of the Internet to “the global multistakeholder community.” Currently, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is under contract with NTIA to perform certain limited but essential functions associated with the global domain name system. Together, these are referred to as the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) functions. Among them is the maintenance of the root zone that sits at the top of the domain name system’s hierarchy of Internet addresses. Under the current system, NTIA approves all changes to the root zone file.

The NTIA announcement is a welcome move, but one potentially fraught with peril. The ending of the US government’s role in the domain name system has been anticipated for years. But any proposed change to the management of core technical elements of the Internet must be assessed with the greatest of care. The task now facing the global community – that of developing a transition proposal for the NTIA’s domain name functions that will maintain the stability and security of the Internet and protect the domain name system from undue interference – is significant.

CDT has long supported the goal of a fully independent and accountable ICANN. However, as we noted in our submission to the upcoming NETmundial meeting on Internet governance in Brazil, we have been concerned by the rush to globalize the IANA functions without adequate deliberations as to how that would happen. While there will be an opportunity to explore proposals at the Brazil meeting, the NTIA announcement clearly indicates the need for a more robust look at how this globalization should occur. NTIA calls on ICANN to be the lead convener for developing a transition proposal. CDT welcomes such a process, provided that it is truly open to participation by all interested parties and that the proposal itself is designed to further the resilience and stability of the Internet and to maintain the open and participatory nature of its governance.

Long-Anticipated Transition

In a move of remarkable foresight, the US government itself spurred the creation of ICANN over 15 years ago as a non-governmental, multistakeholder, globalized body to manage the domain name system. The contractual ties between the US government and ICANN were intended to be temporary, assuming that the body could establish itself as a stable, transparent, and accountable steward of the domain name system. The current contract between NTIA and ICANN runs out September 30, 2015, effectively providing a useful, albeit ambitious deadline for generating a transition proposal that is acceptable to the NTIA. The transition is characterized as a way of supporting and enhancing “the multistakeholder model of Internet policymaking and governance” and as “the final phase of the privatization of the DNS.”

Many stakeholders have been maneuvering toward this transition. Fadi Chehadé, CEO of ICANN, has been pursuing a globalized ICANN throughout his tenure. In October 2013, the leaders of many of the non-governmental organizations that perform the technical coordination of the Internet embraced the Montevideo statement, which “called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions.” Shortly thereafter, Chehadé met with President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, who has been a chief critic of the US government’s Internet surveillance practices. This meeting led Rousseff to agree to host a new conference on Internet governance (the NETmundial meeting), with plans to discuss the “further evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem.”

Indeed, the NSA surveillance revelations have brought many governments’ long-simmering unhappiness with Internet governance back to a boil. As we’ve noted before, it is inaccurate (and likely politically motivated) to conflate Internet governance issues with the need for surveillance reform. But the rallying cry against “US control of the Internet” has returned in full force, fueling proposals for more intergovernmental (that is, government-dominated) approaches to Internet governance that would limit the participation of stakeholders and likely limit free expression and openness. CDT is working with civil society partners globally to oppose the intergovernmental approach in a variety of fora, including the WSIS+10 review and the CSTD working group on enhanced cooperation. In this context, we’re pleased to see NTIA clearly state in its recent announcement that it will not accept a transition proposal “that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”

Accountability without Government?

As CDT’s President and CEO Nuala O’Connor has stated: “There’s a lot of work ahead in determining the specifics of an accountable, independent, multistakeholder ICANN. It’s critical that the next evolution of ICANN be bound by a focused charter that confines it to the essential but narrow task of managing the domain name system, in a transparent and accountable way.” Any successful transition plan must be very specific about ICANN’s mission and must detail the mechanisms for transparency and accountability in the new model, topics that have bedeviled ICANN for years. The NTIA announcement notes that ICANN has taken steps to address transparency and accountability, but we remain to be convinced that these steps are sufficient. ICANN must be wholly committed to transparent, accountable, and bottom-up action that engages and has the support of all of its stakeholders – multi-stakeholder organizations derive much of their legitimacy and credibility from their transparent and inclusive processes and their accountability to the communities represented therein.

While NTIA has asked ICANN to convene global stakeholders to develop a transition proposal, this does not mean that ICANN is necessarily ready to assume the IANA functions itself. All options should be explored, with the goal of developing an approach that best meets the essential criteria for a credible multistakeholder process, including a well-defined mission, transparency, and accountability. It is the responsibility of all stakeholders to objectively assess the suitability of all transition proposals.

The consultation and convening timetable poses a challenge. ICANN’s next meeting, ICANN 49, begins on March 22 in Singapore, less than a week away, yet ICANN plans to launch the transition proposal process at this event. Input from discussions at ICANN 49 will be compiled into materials for public comment. While the overall transition timeline is compressed and there’s a need to get concrete ideas on the table, next week’s ICANN meeting cannot be overly determinative of the ultimate outcome, as many stakeholders do not participate in ICANN meetings and will not be in Singapore to contribute. This concern – and the imperative of reaching and engaging with stakeholders outside the ICANN community – has been echoed by other civil society organizations. While ICANN has been asked to convene this process, CDT urges ICANN to be inclusive and to look beyond its own meetings for mechanisms and fora through which it can reach the global Internet community.

Putting the ‘multi’ in multistakeholder

ICANN’s Chehadé has artfully read the currents of Internet governance, positioning ICANN at the center of what will certainly be a complex and challenging convening on transitioning the role of NTIA. It will not be as straightforward as he or others might hope. Not all stakeholders want to jettison the certainty of “oversight”; not all stakeholders embrace the multistakeholder model; not all stakeholders believe that the openness of the Internet is a feature; and not all stakeholders think ICANN is ready to assume full independence. There is a myriad of diverse voices in the Internet global community and all will want a say.

While the NTIA announcement will sharpen the focus of the NETmundial discussions in April, other important fora loom in the next 18 months, including the ITU Plenipotentiary meeting that starts in October. The import (and geopolitical impact) of the ICANN transition is far from clear. Will the ICANN-led convening model proposed by NTIA satisfy those governments that are calling for intergovernmental Internet policy making? We may find that some governments will not be satisfied by anything short of a government-centric transition plan, which NTIA has preemptively – and rightly – rejected. While the US government’s stewardship has been overshadowed by the concern of geopolitical meddling, it has taken a largely hands-off role and has contributed to the Internet’s stability and continuity. Whatever transition proposal the ICANN-led convening generates, the Internet will not be well served if it fails to provide stable and continuous stewardship within a truly global multistakeholder approach.