The U.S. government will set the DNS root free

We applaud the recent statement from the NTIA announcing its intention to “transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community.” This is a historic moment in the evolution of Internet governance.

IGP has been leading the call for the US government to be consistent about its non-governmental approach to Internet governance since 2005. Naturally, we were gratified to see the Commerce Department finally come around to that position. Far from “giving up” something or “losing control,” the U.S. is sure to find that its policy has gained strength. We have just made it a lot harder for opponents of a free and open Internet to pretend that what they are really against is an Internet dominated by one hegemonic state. We have also made it harder for anyone to complain that multistakeholder governance is just a fig leaf for U.S. pre-eminence. Now the debate between global governance institutions rooted in the Internet community itself, and institutions based on nation-states, will be clearer.

The current head of the NTIA, Lawrence E. Strickling, called upon “the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.” Anticipating this need, IGP released a detailed roadmap for the globalization of the IANA function ten days ago. The proposal has generated over well over 100 replies on the 1net discussion list, and has seen widespread exposure in numerous publications.

We urge ICANN’s management to enter this new age with caution and humility. If there is one false note in the NTIA announcement, it was the implication that ICANN itself should control the process for crafting an appropriate transition plan. One of the key principles of the IGP plan that has gained widespread support is the idea of structural separation of the root zone management functions from the policy making functions. The former is technical and operational, the latter is highly political. We need to keep those two things apart. Keeping them apart ensures that those with policy and political objectives must win public support for their ideas in an open policy process, and cannot impose them upon us by seizing control of the operational levers of the global domain name system.

Despite the impeccable logic of this separation of powers, everyone needs to understand that ICANN as an organization has a very strong interest in gaining control of both the technical-operational and the policy making functions. Controlling both makes ICANN a far more powerful, and far less accountable, entity. Like all organizations, ICANN wants to achieve autonomy and strengthen itself. Countervailing forces in the Internet community will be needed to keep it in check. As businesses with millions of Internet users as customers, businesses whose livelihood depends on secure and stable root zone administration, domain name registries and registrars will play a critical role in providing this countervailing force to ICANN.

As we move forward, let’s not forget that ICANN has been charged with convening a process, not with controlling it. The transition will not work unless ICANN’s management realizes that the main concern keeping the tie to the U.S. government alive was fears about ICANN’s accountability.