February 5, 2015 | Commentary on Internet And Technology, Sovereignty

ICANN Reform: the Timings Off

The dates don't work. The U.S.'s control over ICANN -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit that manages Internet domain names -- will expire before the government can make an informed judgment about how ICANN should function in the future.

Last March, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an executive agency, announced its intent to "transition key Internet domain name functions" from the U.S. to the "global multistakeholder community" this September 30. That's when the current contract between the U.S. and ICANN expires. The announcement sparked concern that ICANN might come under the influence of foreign governments and become less accountable to consumers and businesses that rely on ICANN and the Internet.

In response to these concerns, NTIA clarified that it would renew the contract unless certain conditions were met. It charged ICANN with developing a transition proposal that would ensure the continued openness of the Internet; maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet Domain Name System; support the multi-stakeholder model of decisionmaking; and otherwise meet the needs and expectations of global customers and ICANN partners. NTIA also insisted that no government-led or inter-governmental organization could take over the role currently played by the U.S. in Internet governance.

There is a lot to be done before September 30, and NTIA needs to give 30 days' notice if it wishes to extend the contract. It should prepare to do so, rather than rushing the process or letting the contract expire before a smooth transition has been planned.

Despite NTIA's conditions, a number of experts openly worried about ICANN's lack of transparency and accountability. And ICANN's early actions seemed to validate those concerns. For instance, last summer ICANN's board of directors was poised to approve a by-law change that would have enhanced the influence of the committee through which governments offer advice to ICANN. The proposal united the Internet community in opposition -- a remarkable achievement. Such unanimity among the notoriously factional community had occurred only once before: that same summer, in reaction to ICANN's lack of accountability and transparency.

Congress was uncomfortable with the administration's announcement as well. In December's omnibus appropriations act, it barred NTIA from using any funds to relinquish its "responsibility with respect to the authoritative root zone file and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority functions."

Responding to these calls for accountability, ICANN formed two working groups: the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG), charged with identifying the steps necessary to ensure that the transition will comply with NTIA's requirements; and the ICANN Accountability and Governance Cross Community Working Group (CCWG), charged with delivering "proposals that would enhance ICANN's accountability towards all stakeholders" after the U.S. role ends.

By all accounts, both groups are working hard to complete their assignments. But even if they meet their deadlines, neither NTIA nor Congress will have sufficient time to review their proposals. Worse, the timelines virtually ensure that the U.S. will have to decide whether to extend the current contract or allow the transition to occur before ICANN changes its by-laws to ensure that NTIA's conditions are met.

Specifically, the ICG timeline calls for delivering its final proposal to NTIA on July 31. The CCWG deadline is June 30 -- but NTIA is unlikely to rule on those proposals before it gets the ICG paper. That will create three problems.

First, recall that the existing contract with ICANN expires on September 30 and NTIA must give 30 days' notice to renew it. That leaves NTIA a month, at most, to assess the proposals before deciding to extend the contract or let it expire.

Second, Congress is scheduled to be on recess the entire month of August. This means Congress, which has expressed great interest in this issue, will be unable able to hold oversight hearings, assess the proposal thoroughly, or adopt legislation expressing support or opposition.

And third, one or both of the working-group proposals will likely require amendments to ICANN's by-laws, and history shows that can be a lengthy process, taking at least a month even if all goes smoothly. If the Internet community raises serious objections to the proposal, it would take much longer.

Bottom line: There is virtually zero chance that critical and binding ICANN reforms will be adopted and in effect before NTIA must decide to extend the contract or let it expire. And if NTIA's contract with ICANN expires, so does its ability to ensure that the changes necessary to safeguard the stability and security of the Domain Name System and make ICANN accountable to the Internet community are implemented. Even if the truncated timeline holds, it creates unnecessary pressure for NTIA to make a hasty decision before all necessary changes are fully implemented.

The NTIA should be prepared to relieve this pressure by exercising its option to extend the contract with ICANN through September 2017. Moreover, it should not wait until the last minute, when pressure will be highest, to accept a partial or substandard proposal. Once the contract is extended, the U.S. and ICANN can proceed with care, ending their arrangement only after an acceptable proposal has been offered and all the necessary reforms are in effect.

 - Brett Schaefer is the senior research fellow in international regulatory affairs.

 - Paul Rosenzweig is a visiting fellow at Heritage.

 - James Gattuso is the senior research fellow in regulatory policy

About the Author

James L. Gattuso Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Paul Rosenzweig
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in Real Clear Policy