The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) took another step towards a tectonic shift in Internet governance at its 55th meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, in March. Extensive discussions with the global Internet community spanning a period of two years culminated at the meeting in a plan under which the U.S. government will pass the control of key internet resources from the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) to the global internet community, yet ensure that no other government could capture these resources. If the plan is approved by the U.S. government, we can expect to see a historic moment in the evolution of the Internet.

As it currently stands, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), an agency of the United States Department of Commerce, effectively controls the authoritative Internet root server (located in the U.S.) pursuant to a contract with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), a body run under the umbrella of ICANN. The NTIA carries out its ongoing oversight function by verifying additions and changes made by IANA to the Domain Name System (DNS) root zone to ensure IANA complies with its policies, but has a largely symbolic role. NTIA’s contract with IANA originally expired in September 2015, but was extended until September 2016.

Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and administrator of the NTIA, Lawrence E. Strickling, has, over the past couple of years, championed the transition of the NTIA’s stewardship to the bottom up global multistakeholder community deploying the argument that both authoritarian and certain developing nations have long regarded what they see as U.S. “control” of the Internet with suspicion. Indeed, in a post-Snowdon world, the clamour against perceived U.S. control of the Internet has increased.

In response to a question from one U.S. Senator during a Commerce Committee hearing last February regarding why the U.S. should relinquish its oversight of IANA (in the spirit of “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”), Strickling cited the example of Russia’s ongoing push for the IANA functions to be handed over to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and managed top down by governments. He maintains that the NTIA’s efforts towards transition have latterly created goodwill among certain previously antagonistic developing nations and that this has helped to ensure that authoritarian governments do not get their way.

Such arguments, however, do not seem to have washed with the likes of presidential hopeful, Senator Ted Cruz, who made the dramatic claim that the transition could result in a handover of censorship of the Internet to China. His claim, which reads rather like a conspiracy theory, was partly based on the fact that the ICANN Beijing office collocates in an office with CNNIC, the government-controlled .CN domain name Registry and that its address was, mysteriously, not listed on the ICANN website. Cruz also pointed to ex-ICANN CEO, Fadi Chehade’s attendance at China’s World Internet Conference (WIC), a body affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, while still engaged as ICANN CEO, as well as his future commitment to head up a new “high-level advisory committee” that will develop the agenda for future World Internet Conferences and “contribute ideas for the development of the Internet.” Cruz posed questions in this regard in a letter sent to Chehade and co-signed by fellow senators James Lankford and Michael Lee. Both Chehade and current CEO Stephen Crocker dismissed such claims with Crocker stating that “There are several degrees of separation between matters at ICANN and involvement with the Chinese government.”

Cruz’s alarmist claims were followed by Wall Street Journal op-ed writer L. Gordon Crovitz, in a 20 March article entitled “Stop Obama’s Internet Giveaway”. In this article, Crovitz states that:

“The plan was supposed to ensure that U.S. control could never be replaced “with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution.” Yet it does precisely that, giving foreign governments new powers over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, and a path to full control…”

Somewhat encouragingly, however, no questions along these lines were posed during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “Privatizing the Internet Assigned Number Authority” held on 17 March 2016. During this hearing, Chair of the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) that coordinated the development of the transition proposal, Alissa Cooper, stated that “the result is global consensus in support of a plan that’s good for the Internet.” In fact, the stated aim of those behind the push for transition is to remove the oversight function from a government backed body (the NTIA) and place it with a multistakeholder model in which all (including governments, industry groups and the public) can participate in an open and transparent manner. Cooper went on to elaborate, emphasising that:

“the plan does not replace NTIA’s role with a government or intergovernmental organization. Instead, it relies on the global multistakeholder community to provide oversight over IANA. This community demonstrates a suite of features that defend it against capture by any single interest, including governmental interests. Those features include open processes where anyone can participate and everyone has a say, the use of transparent public proceedings for all decisions, consensus-based decision making that never defaults to voting or campaigning, established appeals processes, and the ability to recall or replace underperforming members of the leadership. Taken together, these form the essence of the multistakeholder model and the best defense against undue influence by any single entity.”

A part of the plan is a proposal for certain enhancements to ICANN’s accountability seen as fundamental to the success of the IANA transition. The accountability proposal, which was developed by the Cross Community Accountability Working Group (CCWG) includes such elements as enhanced public consultation processes for various procedures and introduces seven new “Community Powers” whereby the multistakeholder community can, for example, remove an individual ICANN Board Director, initiate a binding Independent Review Process (IRP), or reject an ICANN Board decision relating to the review of IANA functions. These proposed changes are designed to “ensure that no stakeholder can singlehandedly exercise any power, and that under no circumstances, would any individual segment of the community be able to block the use of a power.”

The CCWG proposal also includes the so-called “Stress Test 18”, which considers a scenario whereby the GAC transitions from consensus decisions (no objections) to majority voting for its advice to the ICANN Board. As the Board must seek a mutually acceptable solution if it rejects GAC advice, some parties raised concerns that the ICANN Board may be forced to arbitrate among sovereign governments if they were unable to reach consensus for GAC advice on public policy matters. This proved to be the most controversial part of the proposal at ICANN 55, with the GAC failing to reach consensus on it, although as no actual objection was raised by the GAC, the plan could go on to be submitted.

ICANN Chair, Stephen Crocker, stated “This plan is a testament to the hard work of the global Internet community and the strength of the multistakeholder model” and went on to say that, if approved by the U.S. Government, “we will have reached an historic moment in the history of the Internet.”

As mentioned above, the NTIA’s current (extended) contract with IANA comes to an end in September 2016. With the U.S. Presidential election due to take place in November 2016, it is not entirely unimaginable that senators hostile to the transition will seek to block the passage of this Obama administration initiative until at least November, when a new president will be elected and, presumably, everything will be thrown into flux. In fact, L. Gordon Crovitz argues for this very scenario in his Wall Street Journal article, stating that:

“The Internet as we know it won’t survive if other governments get their way. At least until there is a new president, it’s up to Congress to insist that the U.S. remains the essential steward of Internet freedom.”

Under the DOTCOM Act that was passed last year and which provides for congressional oversight of U.S. government handover of its IANA oversight function, Congress has 30 legislative days to review the plan, but in real terms, this could take several months.

Now that the plan has been presented to the NTIA and the U.S. Government, it will be interesting to see whether they can manage to get it approved by Congress before September or whether the harbingers of doom will win out. Anchovy News will, of course, be watching for developments.

First published on Anchovy News: Anchovy® is our a comprehensive and centralised online brand protection service for global domain name strategy, including new gTLDs together with portfolio management and global enforcement using a unique and exclusive online platform developed in-house.