On Friday June 9, 2016, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA – a department in the US Department of Commerce) announced that plans to transition the stewardship of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) from the NTIA to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) had successfully met the criteria set out by the NTIA in March 2014. To simplify the mass of acronyms above, this means that domain name systems (DNS) currently managed by the US government are one step closer to being privatized. While the substance of what the IANA currently manages may seem to be on the ‘technical’ side of the internet, this potential transfer embodies two key elements of internet governance: the sharing of a ‘global’ internet, and the normative development of multi-stakeholder governance.
The IANA’s purpose is integral to the functioning of the internet as we know it. It is responsible for managing domain names, number resources (ex. IP addresses), and protocol assignments. In short, it gives every computer and web address ‘titles’ so users can find websites and websites can recognize computers trying to enter them. Without the IANA’s services, accessing and utilizing resources on the internet would be incredibly complicated.
While IANA is already a part of ICANN, a private non-profit organization currently managing most DNS services for the internet, it is also under the stewardship of the NTIA. The NTIA’s involvement was more oversight-based than operational. As a part of the US government’s 1998 initiative to privatize the management of the internet, it basically “[verified] that ICANN followed established processes and procedures in processes to the root zone file.” Essentially, the NTIA was involved to make sure ICANN could manage DNS privately. Now that ICANN has demonstrated that the IANA functions well under its leadership, the NTIA can step back. The NTIA contract over the IANA will officially end in September 2016, and with a transition in place, the US government will allow the contract to lapse and stewardship to shift.
The NTIA had five criteria for the transition of IANA stewardship out of the NTIA: it must “support and enhance the multi-stakeholder model; maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS; meet the needs and expectations of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; maintain the openness of the Internet; [and] have broad community backing.”
The transition proposal submitted by ICANN in March 2016 addressed these criteria through two sections: maintenance of IANA’s functions and suggestions to improve ICANN’s accountability to the Internet community. (I will limit myself to discussing the impact of the transition, but for more information on transition proposal see ICANN’s transition proposal and the NTIA’s proposal assessment).
The IANA transition may not necessarily change how we use the internet directly, but it could have a profound impact on how we approach internet governance. Removing the NTIA from DNS services will remove the US government from a position of direct management of the internet. While the NTIA may not have been significantly involved in what the IANA was doing, the association of the US government with the functioning of the internet implicitly means that it has ‘ownership’ of the internet – a perception that can be detrimental to how parties interact within cyberspace.
For the private-public aspect of the internet, many technology firms have a better grasp of what needs to be done to organize, serve, and secure the internet than the government does. With the recent clashes between tech firms and the US government over encryption, the sense that the government somewhat ‘owns’ their sphere can be harmful to discussions. Additionally, on a diplomatic level the US ‘owning’ the internet has not been a popular rhetoric. It is true that neither the US and China disagreement over internet censorship or the US and EU conflict over data transfers directly have anything to do with internet/DNS management; however, some of the apprehension in how data and access is discussed internationally may stem from the sense that the US government has had the upper hand in how the internet has worked so far. A number of technology firms have signed an open letter in support of the IANA stewardship transfer and countries like Russia and China have voiced their approval as well. With those perceptions in mind, the IANA transfer will contribute to the sentiment of a truly global internet.
Additionally, the section of the transfer proposal regarding improvements to ICANN’s accountability to the internet community contributes to the normative development of a multi-stakeholder management of the internet. The proposal took the opportunity to recommend to ICANN procedural strategies that include more companies and organizations into its activities. These recommendations include the ability of community members to reject ICANN strategic plans and budgets, the use of independent review boards to monitor decisions, and the continuation of transparency in ICANN’s activities.
US Senator Ted Cruz has proposed the Protecting Internet Freedom Act to prevent the transfer of DNS functions out of the US government on the grounds that only the US government can “protect [the internet] from authoritarian regimes that view the internet as a way to increase their influence and suppress freedom of speech.” While Internet censorship is a general concern within internet governance, to associate it with the IANA stewardship transfer would be misguided – the NTIA never had a resonating impact in the IANA’s functions to begin with. The NTIA always knew its stewardship role would be temporary, and it has never rejected any of ICANN’s changes even though it had the express ability to do so. The IANA transfer is important, but it should not be mistaken as the end of the free internet.
So while the IANA transfer of stewardship may not have any impact on how you use the internet directly, it is going to change how the internet is managed overall. Where the goal is to have a free and open global internet, transferring the oversight of the IANA’s responsibility from the US government to a private internet firm may open up further discussions on how to further shape a multi-stakeholder governance system that will ensure the freedom of our internet.
Photo: Courtesy of United States Navy via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
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