The role of the US government in the administration of the Domain Name System (DNS) dates as far back as in 1998. At the time, various academics, myself included, questioned the role the United States government, through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), was exercising on the DNS. Questions regarding ICANN’s independence dominated much of the discussions also at WSIS and, in particular, at the first Internet Governance Forum (IGF). It was all everyone was talking about.
As Internet governance discussions evolved and matured, so did these questions. The Internet community was still asking but, at the same time, it was engaging in more thorough and considered discussions regarding the critical role the United States was exercising. That role was consistent, predictable and made the Internet run smoothly. The Internet was secure, stable and resilient. It was being established that, especially absent any viable alternative at the time, the US government was doing a very good job. But, questions persisted.
That is until 14 March 2014, when the US government, reacting to years of discussion, released a statement, declaring its intention “to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community”. And, with this sentence, the United States government demonstrated to the entire world that, given the right process and the right ingredients, it is willing to terminate its stewardship role over this part of the Internet’s infrastructure.
For many this was long overdue. Under the 1997 Green Paper proposal on the “Improvement of Technical Management of Internet Names and Addresses”, “the US Government would gradually transfer [specific DNS functions] to [ICANN …], with the goal of having [ICANN] carry out operational responsibility by October 1998. Under the Green Paper proposal, the US government would continue to participate in policy oversight until such time as [ICANN] was established and stable, phasing out as soon as possible, but in no event later than September 2000”. Evidently, this deadline was never met. The 1998 MoU between the US government and ICANN was extended and then further extended and then re-extended (under a different name – the Joint Project Agreement or JPA), until it took the form of the Affirmation of Commitments in 2009.
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Lawrence E. Strickling, stated that “the timing is right to start the transition process”, explaining the ‘why now” question and inviting the Internet community to find a workable framework for the evolution of the IANA functions. As parties engage in this process, the US government is requesting that a set of conditions are met. These conditions illustrate a vision of an Internet that continues to thrive as a tool for innovation and creativity, is secure and as inclusive as possible. They should not be underestimated or taken for granted.
The first concerns multistakeholderism. By entrusting the multistakeholder model to create a functioning process for that would replace its stewardship role, the US government is demonstrating its integrity and belief to multistakeholder governance. This is quite remarkable. The various stakeholders have now a window of opportunity to engage in substantive discussions and find ways to work alongside through a bottom-up, inclusive, transparent and accountable process.
Caution and patience is required; failure of the stakeholders to demonstrate their capacity to build and adhere to a robust process can provide the ammunition to the critics of the model and jeopardize years of discussions. Its spillover effect will be impactful and could extent to the Internet itself. As multistakeholderism becomes more ingrained into the operational aspects of the Internet, it now becomes even more significant to get this right.
Naturally, this multistakeholder model will have to evolve and continue to demonstrate its flexibility; it will need to involve everyone and especially those materially-affected parties that are directly related to the various aspects of the Internet’s addressing and naming system.
Materially-affected parties become key actors in this process because of their ability to maintain the security, stability and resiliency of the Internet. Their experience in the day-to-day management of protocol parameters, IP numbers and names should be utilized to the full possible extent. They understand and they know what a secure and resilient Internet looks like. They are the trusted parties that have ensured a stable Internet for all these years; they have been majorly accountable. They, too, will have to go through their own re-evaluation and re-thinking; but, they are able to provide answers to emerging questions. As we heard in Singapore, what stable, secure and resilient mean will have to be rethought and clearly explained. What are the tools? Are there pre-existing mechanisms that ensure this? Are there specific principles that need to be applied?
Reaching a common and shared understanding to such questions becomes critical. The first step is for them to be addressed in any forum supporting multistakeholder participation. Singapore was the beginning. As they continue to be addressed, new, of course, will emerge. Questions on accountability will be key for this to work. But, it is too early to come up with a conclusive solution. What is required now is continuing the dialogue through a collaborative process.
The way I see it (and the NTIA statement instructs) all this work is to ensure the openness of the Internet – openness that has contributed to economic growth, has facilitated the exchange of knowledge, has introduced different ways of social interaction, has empowered people, has addressed issues of poverty and illiteracy and has connected billions of us together. The IANA functions play a critical part in what it means to have an open Internet.
Let’s get to work and get this right!