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Can the inmates run the asylum? The U.S. plan to stop ruling the open Internet

north america set to run out of ipv4 numbers icann fadi chehade
Are the heads of ICANN ready to run the Internet without the U.S.? (Credit: Flickr/icannphotos)

In March, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department dropped a bombshell: it asked ICANN to come up with a proposal to take over core functions of the Internet by September, 2015. Last week’s NETmundial conference in Brazil — originally organized to address surveillance and privacy issues raised by the Snowden revelations — represented the first time ICANN and the Internet community have tried to hammer out a plan for Net governance independent of the United States.

Ideally, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Names And Numbers) needs something approved and in place in less than 18 months, or the U.S. will extend its current management arrangement until 2019 … keeping the Internet’s central functions under its thumb.

When will ICANN come up with a plan? And does the U.S. ceding control over central Internet operations represent a threat to Net freedom, as some politicians claim?

What is the IANA?

The IANA — a department of ICANN named the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority — is responsible for some of the fundamental glue that holds the Internet together. Without getting too geeky, the so-called IANA functions come down to three important tasks:

  • Managing domains: Handling changes to the DNS root zones used by the entire Internet. These are what define top-level domains like .com, .edu, .uk, .ru, and (now) hundreds more.
  • Choosing ports and protocols: Coordinating technical protocol parameters used by Internet services – like the Web. When you connect to a Web server, your browser normally does it on port 80, rather than any of the other 65,535 ports it could choose. Port 80 is standard for the Web because the IANA says it’s standard; they also assign thousands of other ports for other services and protocols, like email, and FTP.
  • Handing out IP: Allocating IP numbers (blocks of Internet addresses) to regional Internet registries for different parts of the world, who in turn allocate them to ISPs, corporations, and others in their regions.

On paper, the U.S. government ending stewardship of the IANA would remove the last vestige of U.S. control over the Internet’s day-to-day operations. Symbolically, the handover might represent that ICANN is all grown up – that the once-struggling, bickering organization is a true player on the world stage.

Who operates the IANA?

Back in the old (old!) days, the IANA functions were handled by one guy: Jon Postel, one of the fathers of the Internet. (And he did it more-or-less when he had time.) Postel died in 1998, and the NTIA asserted greater authority over IANA functions. After all, the Internet had become important to the U.S. economy (this was the first dot-com boom), and the U.S. government wasn’t comfortable with the Internet’s heart being in the hands of one guy who might decide to arbitrarily change the Internet’s core routing. (Postel did that once.) However, when the NTIA stepped in, it was with the idea that the IANA functions would be handed over to the private sector.

Jon Postel
Jon Postel in 1994, with map of Internet. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“In its 1998 policy statement, the Department of Commerce stated that the U.S. government is committed to a transition that will allow the private sector to take leadership for DNS management,” NTIA chief Lawrence Strickling told Congress earlier this month.

But back in 1998, ICANN had literally just been founded, and had no experience doing IANA stuff – that had been Jon’s job! So the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) contracted with ICANN to handle the work (for free), retaining formal oversight just in case. Sixteen years later, the Internet is now indispensable to the global economy … and that’s where things still stand.

How does U.S. Internet oversight work?

In practice, neither the NTIA nor the U.S. government has direct control over ICANN policymaking. When ICANN’s sometimes-protracted process approves an update to the root zones – say, to add new top-level domains such as .ninja – the NTIA acts as a middle-man, verifying the changes and then passing them to Verisign, the company that operates two of the 13 root servers and responsible for propagating changes. The NTIA has described its involvement as a “secretarial role,” and for 16 years it’s been very hands-off, letting ICANN do its own thing.

But, you know, there was that one time in 2005 things went awry: .xxx.

The Bush administration was not pleased that ICANN granted preliminary approval to the racy top-level domain. The implication was that if ICANN pressed forward, the administration would direct the NTIA to block its implementation. That never happened: ICANN awkwardly backpedaled and .xxx didn’t become a top-level domain for six more years. The NTIA can still legitimately claim it’s never exercised control over root zone changes. But it probably would have if ICANN had forced the U.S. government’s hand, and that chance of U.S. government intervention makes lots of people nervous.

Next page: How the U.S. Wants the Internet to run

Here’s how the U.S. wants the Internet to run

The U.S. has set some conditions for the IANA handover. Along with requiring the plan to maintain the openness and reliability of IANA functions and meet the needs of IANA users, the NTIA is also requiring it to enhance ICANN’s multi-stakeholder model. (See below.) And there’s one more thing: NTIA will not accept any proposal that puts IANA functions in the hands of a government or an intergovernmental coalition. In other words, the United Nations (UN) – and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – are ruled out from the get-go.

For ICANN – and a number of other organizations – a “multi-stakeholder” process has a very specific meaning: anyone interested in a topic can get involved, right alongside big names, major players, and world powers. Moreover, ICANN’s process is run by consensus – it’s not as simple as having an argument, then taking a vote and letting the majority rule. All the stakeholders must agree. Of course, ICANN’s inner workings are more complicated (committees and high-level stakeholders abound), but that’s the general idea.

The U.S. will not accept any proposal that puts the Internet in the hands of a government or intergovernmental coalition.

A multi-stakeholder model sounds like a great way to create bickering and deadlock – and ICANN has seen its share of slow decision-making. But some argue ICANN is making the model work.

“I think ICANN already has one of the most diverse consensus-building opportunities and operations that the world has ever seen,” Alan Marcus, Head of Information Technology and Telecommunications Industries for the World Economic Forum USA, told Digital Trends. “They really reach out to stakeholders all over the world and get them involved in all their decision-making processes.”

That doesn’t mean the stakeholders – and hence ICANN – are insulated from political pressure. Governments can be stakeholders and could potentially work together to influence or even change ICANN’s policy processes. (One scenario put forward by L. Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal posits governments like China and Iran colluding to switch ICANN from consensus to majority-rule voting.)

Others point out the multi-stakeholder model itself can protect against those kinds of manipulations.

“Multi-stakeholder accountability suggests politics and governmental influence will not vanish,” wrote Fabio Pereira, partner at Sao Paulo’s Veirano Advogados and a leading intellectual property lawyer in Brazil. “Instead, it suggests accountability will extend to a rich diversity of qualified actors who will equally attempt to influence the organization. The multi-stakeholder model may be sufficiently autonomous to assess demands and choose whether or not to consent to them.”

So what happens now?

The timing of the NTIA announcement led to speculation that the United States was trying to divert attention from polarizing issues of data security and government surveillance, which were already guaranteed to be huge topics at the NETmundial conference this week in Brazil. Brazil just passed its own Internet bill of rights, taking steps to protect both Net neutrality and individual privacy – that timing is certainly no coincidence. But another factor in the NTIA’s decision may have been that major Internet organizations basically called out the NTIA in October 2013, saying it was time to make good on turning over IANA functions.

“I do think for quite a while the NITA was operationally prepared to give this up,” noted Marcus. “It was going to happen at time where the U.S. and other stakeholders felt that ICANN was ready. So they’re ready.”

ICANN is trying to work out a proposal for handling IANA functions by following its multi-stakeholder policy model. Some 46 countries submitted almost 200 documents for consideration at NETmundial; coordinators culled through them, drafted an outcome document, and left that open for free public comment for a week. As usual, reading the comments can be … purgatorial. Trying to achieve consensus may be a very long road.

ICANN domains“The big issue people are talking about is whether we should simply leave IANA functions inside ICANN as kind of a department, or whether we should pull them out of ICANN,” said Dr. Milton Mueller of the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. “I’m an advocate of pulling the operational parts of IANA away from ICANN and having a structural separation between the two, where the policy-making apparatus is separated from the implementation and operation.” Milton co-authored a proposal to that effect that was submitted to NETmundial, and thinks the transition could be done by September 2015.

Others are skeptical about a 2015 transition.

“It is not likely that the governance of the Internet will be fully transferred to an autonomous ICANN before September 2015,” wrote Pereira. “The Brazilian Internet Steering Committee has proposed the transition of functions occur over a five-year term.”

The NTIA has an option to do that. If ICANN can’t come up with a plan and be ready to roll by September 2015, the NTIA can extend ICANN’s contract another four years, pushing transfer of IANA functions to 2019. Some U.S. lawmakers might hope a change of administration might mean the NTIA retains its oversight role – some are trying to delay the possible 2015 handoff. But most expect only a delay, not a reversal.

Will the U.S. ceding control mean repression or censorship?

“We know there are some members of the world who do want to censor, who do want to have control, who do want to ensure things follow only their way of thinking,” said Marcus. “On other hand, we’ve also clearly recognized there are many countries who may not have the right say and the right value to add to this ongoing debate. What ICANN has been doing over the last few years is ensuring those voices are heard.”

“I think this linkage of Internet freedom and censorship to ICANN is kind of bogus, said Mueller. “If you’re really going to be repressive on a global level, you could use the domain name system to take domains away. But most governments are doing it at the national level by controlling and regulating Internet service providers. They don’t really need to take ICANN over to do that.”

When will ICANN make a decision?

ICANN will continue working with its own stakeholders as well as other organizations and forums to come up with an actual plan for the IANA functions.

Expect ICANN to talk to several UN-sponsored conferences and groups, like the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS +10), the World Conference on International Telecommunications, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and the ITU. (Big IGF and ITU meetings are coming in September and October, respectively.) There’s also the Internet Society (which oversees the IETF and the Internet Architecture Board, major “customers” of the IANA functions), the W3C, and all the regional Internet registries to consider. Everybody will have their two cents. ICANN’s next major meetings are in London this June and Los Angeles in October: expect IANA functions to be a hot topic at both.

September 2015 gets closer every second.

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