Timothy M. Denton

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ICANN and the transfer of authority from the USG

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Lawrence Strickland, head of the US National Telecommunications and Information Authority, announced that the handover of responsibility for the IANA functions contract, would be delayed.

The IANA functions contract is the contract between the US Government and ICANN for the registration of top level domain name root zone changes, and other matters related to protocol parameters, IP addressing and autonomous system numbers.

The US Government had issued a message in 2014 that it expected the communities of interest in ICANN to work out a transition whereby the USG would no longer be the backstop for the management of these functions.

The numbering and protocol communities were able to come up with proposals that had achieved consensus within their communities. Both the Regional Internet Registries, for addressing issues, and the IETF, for protocol parameters, had clearly defined interests, and organizations capable of expressing them to ICANN. Whether ICANN would be able to accept those proposals is another matter, which we may learn about in time. The two communities of interest with the least to do with ICANN had the organizations and internal legitimacy need to formulate proposals within the timeframe set by the US Government.

In essence those proposals said: we will hire you, ICANN, to do this work for us under such and such conditions, and if we do not like the level of service, then we must have the right to find another contractor to make these registrations.

On the nature of the responses by the addressing and protocol parameters, I am reasonably confident of being accurate. On the issues besetting the top-level domain names communities, my direct experience is less complete and recent, but some inferences and conjectures may be made.

99.9% of the business of IANA is making changes  in the root zone, the central directory of top level domains. Organizing a response by the domain name community to the USG for the handover of IANA functions proved far more difficult. First, it was not a community with a single interest, but had conflicting interests within itself, and second, it had never been allowed by ICANN to evolve on its own. The Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) is the sub-group within ICANN charged with developing policy on top level domain names. From the beginning of ICANN, decisions of the GNSO council had been frequently overturned by the ICANN Board. Of the three communities, the top-level domain names was the least organized, and only with the 2014 announcement by the US did it feel the need to begin that process of independent self-organization.

The domain name world is where you find the IP lawyers, the projectors, the promoters, the cash, and most of the politics. ICANN conferences are filled with business people seeking market opportunities. The stuff that has to run quietly, addressing and protocols, are handled in different organizations that meet anywhere but at an ICANN meeting. There are no jointly scheduled meetings of ICANN with registries, or with the IETF, for example. Nerds predominate.

I once asked a sincere but naive question of some senior US Internet authorities, which was: Why is the US Government doing this? Why was it seeking to surrender its backstop authority over the Internet? The answer I received was that, the US had promised this would be done some time ago, and it was sticking to its word. The justification had more to do with the honour of the US government's word than with practical, strategic, or pecuniary motives.

It is impossible to predict whether the USG will eventually find that its conditions for handover of the Internet to less supervision have been met. The delay announced today will not put an end to the process. Yet I cannot help but think that some people somewhere are having second thoughts about the wisdom of the whole idea.




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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.


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Guest Tuesday, 19 November 2019
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