The contract between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to perform IANA functions officially expired as of October 1. Put simply, the US government no longer controls any aspect of ICANN.
Which is a pretty big deal – if perhaps for the wrong reasons.
For certain US politicians, it’s the greatest disaster in the history of disasters and means that the internet will now be controlled by Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Islamic State. Thanks, Obama!
For people who actually understand how the internet works, it’s been a long time coming. Discussions to give ICANN control over IANA (which manages the internet’s domain names and IP addresses) have been ongoing for close to 20 years, and the US government has resisted the move almost every step of the way – until Edward Snowden happened, after which US reps found it increasingly difficult to convince the rest of the world that it could be trusted with control over IANA.
Also, it’s not as though this is happening without any input from the US. From the ICANN statement on the handover:
The final chapter of the privatization process began in 2014, when NTIA asked ICANN to convene the global multi-stakeholder community, which is made up of private-sector representatives, technical experts, academics, civil society, governments and individual Internet end users, to come together and formulate proposals to both replace NTIA’s historic stewardship role and enhance ICANN’s accountability mechanisms.
The package of proposals developed by the global community met the strict criteria established by NTIA in its March 2014 announcement. Since their submission to NTIA, ICANN and its various stakeholder groups have worked tirelessly to ensure that all the necessary implementation tasks have been completed, so the IANA functions contract could expire on 30 September 2016.
ICANN Board Chair Stephen D. Crocker declared the transition both historic and a validation of ICANN’s multistakeholder model of Internet governance. “It has shown that a governance model defined by the inclusion of all voices, including business, academics, technical experts, civil society, governments and many others is the best way to assure that the Internet of tomorrow remains as free, open and accessible as the Internet of today.”
The Register went further, calling it “the most significant change in the internet’s functioning for a generation”.
And it is, in the sense that it marks one of the few times that a major government entity has actually relinquished control of a communications technology.
This is ultimately a good thing as far as the internet goes. It might have made sense for NTIA to govern IANA back when the US was hosting most of the content and serving as the central hub for internet traffic. But the internet has long since gone truly global, and in these days where the internet is considered critical infrastructure, broadband connectivity is a human right, and cyber-espionage/warfare is actually a thing, it’s hard to argue that any single government should be in charge of global internet operations. (Okay, it’s not that hard if you represent that particular government, but good luck getting anyone outside your political support base to take you seriously.)
It’s also helpful to remember the global context in which this debate is taking place. Four years ago at the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), internet governance was a hot and very controversial topic, with a number of member states pushing proposals that would give the ITU (and thus a more active role in governing and regulating the internet. The topic was so controversial that just including a non-binding resolution for further discussion at future ITU forums prompted 55 countries (led by the US) to literally walk out rather than sign.
Two years later, the issue was addressed again at the ITU’s 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan – but this time, the general outcome was to preserve the status quo regarding the ITU’s role in internet policy-making (meaning the ITU would leave internet governance to ICANN and related multistakeholder groups). Some regimes almost certainly would rather have more governmental control of the internet, but as their main objection in the past was essentially US control of IANA, they may now have less incentive to harp on the issue – for now.
The wild card here is that while both private and public internet stakeholders may prefer a fully privatized ICANN to one with the US controlling IANA, many of them aren’t that happy with ICANN, either. For years, ICANN has stood accused of mismanagement, lack of transparency in its decision making and a general lack of accountability for those decisions. ICANN says its accountability has been greatly improved as a condition of NTIA letting the contract lapse. ICANN critics disagree, fiercely.
The US-based Internet Government Coalition – whose members include AT&T, Cisco Systems, Comcast, Disney, Facebook, GoDaddy, Google, Juniper, Microsoft, Telefonica and Verizon – supports the transition, but issued a statement saying that while it supports the transition of IANA to multi-stakeholder governance, “there is still much work that needs to be done to ensure the accountability and transparency of ICANN. We look forward to working with the multi-stakeholder community on these ongoing efforts.”
So while ICANN may finally be free of unilateral government influence, the organization needs to do more to assure all internet players everywhere that it can be trusted with the job.