Commerce OKs Web Oversight Transition From U.S.

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By Joseph Wright

June 9 — The Department of Commerce June 9 gave its stamp of approval to the plan to remove the U.S. government from the last vestiges of technical Internet oversight.

The transfer plan meets Commerce's stated criteria, Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence E. Strickling, the administrator of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, announced.

“The Internet’s multistakeholder community has risen to the challenge we gave them to develop a transition proposal that would ensure the Internet’s domain name system will continue to operate as seamlessly as it currently does,” Strickling said. “The plan developed by the community will strengthen the multistakeholder approach that has helped the Internet to grow and thrive, while maintaining the stability, security, and openness that users across the globe depend on today.”

The transition enjoys broad support from Internet companies, who were actively involved in the drafting process, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle supported legislation to allow an NTIA-certified plan to go forward. But some conservative advocacy groups and lawmakers have expressed concerns that the plan opens the door for nations such as China and Russia to have a greater voice in governing the Internet.

The transition is also a diplomatic initiative. At a 2012 conference, 89 countries signed on to revised International Telecommunication Regulations that included provisions to give governments, through the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union, more influence over Internet governance. Nearly 30 of those countries have demonstrated support for the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance by supporting ICANN's proposal.

“The tech industry appears to be unanimous in its support, and I would include in that the ISPs as well for the transition proposal and seeing it through on time,” Jamie Hedlund, ICANN's vice president for strategic programs in the Global Domains Division, told Bloomberg BNA June 9.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) introduced companion legislation June 8 that would block the transition unless Congress votes to approve it ( see related article ).

Strickling told reporters June 9 that NTIA is also studying a provision in pending appropriations legislation that would prohibit the agency from spending money to effect the transition. But he said the contract will expire of its own accord Sept. 30, and he didn't believe allowing the contract to expire would violate the prohibition.

Three major trade groups representing e-commerce giants and technical Internet infrastructure makers—the Internet Association, the Computer & Communications Industry Association and the Internet Infrastructure Coalition—issued a statement June 9 praising the announcement.

"The Internet economy applauds NTIA for its deliberative and thorough work reviewing the ICANN transition proposals to ensure its principles for a successful transition are met,” the groups said. “It is important that Congress not artificially slow down the transition beyond the September 30 expiration of the current IANA contract.”

But Kristian Stout, associate director for innovation policy with the International Center for Law and Economics, said June 9 that the transition plan leaves important questions unanswered.

“It’s one thing to leave some of the finer details to be worked out post-transition, but several fundamental governance issues remain outstanding, including ICANN’s ability to thwart threats of foreign government intrusion, its willingness and ability to ensure a basic level of contractual compliance and respect for property rights among registrars and registries, and its avoidance of antitrust liability risk,” Stout said.

Approval Criteria

The Commerce announcement wasn't surprising, as NTIA closely monitored and occasionally intervened to provide direction in the drafting process.

The Commerce Department announced its intention to step away from its traditional role in March 2014, provided that an acceptable replacement could be found (19 ECLR 362, 3/19/14). Business, government and civil society representatives spent two years developing a plan to recreate the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which has performed the technical functions under a federal contract since 1998, as a self-governing entity.

Strickling's three-month review tested the proposal against NTIA's stated criteria that any plan needed to:

  •  support and enhance the multistakeholder model;
  •  maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS;
  •  meet the needs and expectations of the global customers and partners of the services; and
  •  maintain the openness of the Internet.

 

NTIA also required that the plan not substitute U.S. oversight with a government-led or intergovernmental alternative. On the recommendation of the Government Accountability Office, NTIA also evaluated the proposal against existing corporate internal controls frameworks and best practices, commissioning an independent assessment from corporate governance experts.

NTIA's report will be transmitted to ICANN and to members of Congress, Strickling said.

“We’re very pleased with the thorough report and assessment of the proposal and how it meets the criteria NTIA set forth,” Hedlund said.

The Commerce Department's contract with ICANN is scheduled to expire Sept. 30. Asked whether ICANN is on pace to complete the transition at that time, Hedlund said, “Very much so.”

The Commerce Department currently approves changes to the root zone file, which is the directory that allows computers worldwide to find each other. Strickling described NTIA's role as “largely clerical.” But the ability to rebid the IANA contract has also allowed the Commerce Department to exert influence over ICANN, which has helped perpetuate the idea that the U.S. government controls the Internet.

ICANN also assured NTIA that the .gov and .mil domains, which have been reserved for exclusive U.S. government use since the 1980s, will remain under U.S. control. That assurance would have been required under Cruz and Duffy's bill.

Remaining Steps

Work remains before ICANN can complete the transition. ICANN and Verisign have created a direct link for root zone changes that is currently being tested in parallel with the NTIA process. The results of the two processes must match for 90 days without an unexplained error, or the testing must restart, Hedlund said. As of June 9, the testing is on day 64 with no errors.

ICANN must submit a report to NTIA by Aug. 12 describing its readiness to complete the transition by Sept. 30, Strickling said. At that point NTIA will determine whether the IANA functions contract must be extended or if it will be allowed to expire.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joseph Wright in Washington at jwright@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alexis Kramer at akramer@bna.com

For More Information

NTIA's report is available at http://src.bna.com/fKr.