Under President Clinton in 1998, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) entered into a contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to manage core functions of the Internet—including managing policy and technical features of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS).
On March 14, 2014, NTIA announced its intent not to renew its contract with ICANN. NTIA tasked ICANN to meet with “global stakeholders” on an alternative to the current role of NTIA in the coordination of the DNS.
NTIA specified that this new oversight must:
- “Support and enhance the multi-stakeholder model;”
- “Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS;”
- “Meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services;” and
- “Maintain the openness of the Internet.”
- Additionally, NTIA stated that it “will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”
After receiving congressional and private sector concerns, NTIA administrator and Assistant Secretary Lawrence E. Strickling reaffirmed these principles and clarified that the U.S. would renew the ICANN contract should the transition not meet U.S. principles. The current contract expires September 30, 2015, but may be renewed twice for two-year terms through September 30, 2019.
The U.S. should not end its stewardship of the Internet until adequate safeguards are in place.
Basic Facts About the Internet System
- The DNS is what allows users to type a website name into an Internet browser and connect with that website, e.g., heritage.org connects to the computers that run The Heritage Foundation’s website.
- Part of the DNS includes the global top-level domains (gTLDs) and country code top-level domains (ccTLD). Examples of gTLDs are .com and .org; examples of ccTLDs are .uk and .ru.
- The IANA has been contracted to ICANN by the U.S. government. This works through the maintenance of the DNS root zone, which is essentially the address book of the Internet. The root zone is maintained on 13 sets of root servers that are comprised of “many hundreds of root servers at over 130 physical locations in many different countries.”
- Currently, to change the root zone, ICANN develops the policy for the change and then obtains approval from the NTIA. If the NTIA approves the change, it is forwarded to Verisign, a company that has a contract with the NTIA to act as the Root Zone Maintainer. Verisign implements the technical changes and pushes the address update to the root servers. If a transition occurs, it is not clear if Verisign’s role will continue.
- U.S. oversight has been light-handed, focusing on maintaining and developing Internet stability and reliability. This has allowed the Internet to grow and develop at a fantastic pace.
Concerns About U.S. Removal of Stewardship and Oversight
- Capture by governments and/or intergovernmental organizations. Many authoritarian governments are threatened by the openness and freedom of the Internet and wish to censor or restrict it.
- Accountability (or lack thereof) within ICANN. ICANN could be tempted by its new autonomy. Since it will essentially enjoy a monopoly over core DNS decisions, there are serious concerns that ICANN may act in ways that do not advance the interests of the Internet or its users.
- Technical reliability. Verisign currently does an excellent job managing the technical changes to the root zone under contract to the NTIA. Questions remain over Verisign’s new role after the transition.
What Should the U.S. Do?
- Sort out legal authority ambiguities quickly. Some have raised the concern that the NTIA does not have the authority to give away stewardship. Congress should investigate these claims quickly, as they may preclude certain actions by the executive or require congressional action.
- Create clear guidelines for ICANN’s new oversight. ICANN should be insulated from political pressure from the U.N. and authoritarian governments but should also be accountable to individuals and businesses that rely on the Internet. Congress should mandate a set of standards and checks to ensure independent oversight and accountability of ICANN. This includes, but is not limited to, requiring that:
- ICANN’s new oversight is not based on governmental or U.N. control of ICANN;
- ICANN develop a multi-stakeholder oversight system incorporating businesses of all sizes and industry groups with the authority to veto ICANN decisions that threaten the openness or viability of the Internet;
- ICANN’s new structure include checks and balances between oversight, policy, and technical elements of ICANN;
- ICANN submit to an independent auditing body comprising business and nongovernmental organization representatives to monitor its finances and activities; and
- ICANN demonstrate to the U.S.’s satisfaction its technical capability to manage the root zone and shield it from malicious interference.
- Maintain its stewardship role over ICANN if the successor proposal endangers the openness and freedom of the Internet. Congress should specifically instruct the NTIA to renew the ICANN contract if these requirements are not met.
- Paul Rosenzweig, “The Proposed Transfer of the IANA Function to ICANN,” Heritage Foundation White Paper, April 15, 2014.
- Brett D. Schaefer, James L. Gattuso, Paul Rosenzweig and David Inserra, “Important Work to Be Done Before the U.S. Relinquishes Stewardship of ICANN,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief #4175, March 21, 2014.
Show references in this report
 Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, “Should the Department of Commerce Relinquish Direct Oversight Over ICANN?” testimony before the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, April 10, 2014, http://www.ntia.doc.gov/speechtestimony/2014/testimony-assistant-secretary-strickling-hearing-should-department-commerce-rel (accessed April 24, 2014).
 Kim Davies, “There Are Not 13 Root Servers,” ICANN blog, November 15, 2007, http://blog.icann.org/2007/11/there-are-not-13-root-servers/ (accessed April 24, 2014).