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Bringing an end to the US oversight of Internet domains

Last month, a critical moment in Internet history took place at the 55th meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in Marrakech, Morocco. I had the privilege of participating, as a member of the Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC), in the ICANN community’s milestone resolution in creating and submitting a series of proposals to the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

As much as those of us who regularly participate in ICANN chartering organisations had the opportunity to participate in the transition work, the majority of credit due for this unprecedented achievement in Internet governance is owed to the members of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG), its sub teams, and the Cross Community Working Group On Enhancing ICANN Accountability (CCWG).

This proposal, if approved, will bring to an end the U.S. government’s direct stewardship of Internet domains. I should of, course, note that the U.S. government will retain an influential role in such affairs but, as one of a group of nations, instead of as the sole overseer, as it currently stands.

The framework, proposed by ICANN, advocates taking over management of IANA, the set of registries for IP addresses, domain names and protocol parameters which are essential for a functional global Internet. As part of this transition, proposals also consider ways to enhance ICANN’s accountability as a fully independent organisation, the last step in the privatisation of the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS), long-anticipated since being first outlined in 1998 when ICANN was incorporated.

Transitioning to shared Internet governance

There is little question that this was one of the most significant meetings in the near twenty years of ICANN’s history. And, while the language of the resolutions sent to NTIA is complex, the proposed mechanisms have been well thought out and take into account the necessary, yet difficult to achieve, consensus of the organisation.

Ultimately, the framework leads to a global oversight of the management of many key technical Internet functions, which are currently overseen solely by the U.S. This is a milestone transition to shared Internet governance – otherwise referred to as a multi-stakeholder model — in which governments, research institutions, businesses, and non-government organisations worldwide can all participate.

In its 20-year lifetime, ICANN has managed IANA under a contract with NTIA, the aforementioned U.S. Commerce Department agency managing telecommunications and information administration. But in March 2014, the U.S. government agency marked its intention to transition out of its longstanding stewardship role. This is what brings us to these recent developments.

Greater stability, security, and accountability

In the long run, Internet users across the world will benefit from the transition framework’s security, accountability and stability enhancements to Internet governance. A thoughtful compromise, the plan commits to doing more than the current system to preserve the status quo of a diverse and open Internet, through making ICANN directly accountable to Internet users globally.

Transitioning the oversight of the IANA functions to ICANN will provide greater protection to Internet names and numbering systems against meddling by governments that don't necessarily value the Internet’s free flow of information. For instance, only recommendations from its Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) that are supported by at least two-thirds of the committee members would be considered by the ICANN board.

This requirement should hinder the Internet governance potential of repressive regimes, other groups threatened by an open Internet, and any countries attempting to exercise an existing 'veto' power over policy initiatives or proposed top level domains which have wide support from the community.

There is more to be done

While this resolution certainly marks an important next step, the work is far from done. The plan must first be reviewed by the U.S. government to ensure it meets NTIA’s criteria. Then, if approved, it is expected that its implementation could be completed by September 2016.

The implementation itself will be far more difficult to accomplish, as this is the phase where far more attention must be paid to the details. More work is still also to be completed by the Work Stream 2 volunteers of the CCWG, who are looking into accountability issues that could arise post-transition. And we, at the SSAC, will continue to watch closely in order to identify issues that may impact the stability and security of the Internet during the transition phase and beyond.

Rod Rasmussen, vice president for cybersecurity at Infoblox

Image Credit: Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock