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The IANA stewardship transition: what is happening? (Part I)

Published on 16 September 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

The attention of the global Internet community is very much focused these days on the IANA stewardship transition process. The umbilical cord between the US government and ICANN is expected to be cut on 1 October; afterwards, ICANN is to function as an entity accountable to the global multistakeholder Internet community. With this date rapidly approaching, both the supporters and the opposers of the transition tend to become more and more vocal in arguing for their positions. This post looks at the current status of the transition process, in a two-part series: this first part provides a brief overview of the overall process up to now; the second part presents some of the arguments brought in favour and against the transition.

Intent to transition the stewardship role

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a US-based not-for-profit corporation whose main role is to coordinate the global Internet’s systems of unique identifiers (mainly domain names, Internet protocol (IP) numbers, and IP parameters), and to define policies for how these identifiers should run. ICANN’s role in the coordination of Internet’s technical resources (also known as the ‘IANA functions’) is carried out on the basis of a contract with the US government (USG), which is set to expire on 30 September 2016.

In the framework of this contract, the USG has an overall stewardship role over the Domain Name System (DNS) (which translates domain names into IP addresses): any major change in the DNS root zone (e.g. the introduction of a new top level domain such as .bank), once decided by ICANN, is passed to the USG (namely, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – NTIA) for validation, before being implemented. In practice, what NTIA does is to simply verify if ICANN’s decision was made in line with its policies, and to then transmit the change to Verisign (the maintainer of the root zone) for implementation. There is no record of cases when NTIA has not validated a decision made by ICANN with regard to root zone changes.

In March 2014, the USG announced its intention to transition its stewardship role over the DNS to the global multistakeholder community. ICANN was requested to launch a process for the development of a transition proposal, which must have broad community support and be in line with four key criteria: support and enhance the multistakeholder model; maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the DNS; meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and maintain the openness of the Internet. At the same time, work began on the elaboration of a set of recommendations for enhancing ICANN’s accountability mechanisms. As a result of this work, a transition proposal and an accountability proposal have been elaborated by the community, approved by the ICANN Board, and submitted to NTIA, which concluded that they are in line the criteria previously set by the Administration. Read the complete developments on the GIP Digital Watch observatory’s dedicated page.

What would change on the basis of the transition and accountability proposals?

The transition proposal envisions the creation of a separate legal entity (‘Post Transition IANA’ – PTI), as a subsidiary of ICANN, which will become the IANA functions operator, on the basis of a contract with ICANN. Therefore, IANA functions will continue to be performed within the ICANN framework, but a more clear separation between the technical functions and the policy making functions of ICANN is to be established.

There are also provisions in the proposal underlining the conditions under which a review process could lead to a separation of the IANA functions operator from ICANN. Major changes in the DNS root zone, currently subject to the USG formal approval, will be authorised by the ICANN Board of Directors.

The accountability proposal outlines a series of mechanisms aimed to make ICANN more accountable to the global Internet community.  These additional accountability measures are seen as a necessary counterpart of the transition, meant to ensure that, in the absence of the accountability backstop provided by NTIA’s stewardship role of the IANA functions, there will be strong check and balances in place preventing ICANN from departing from its mission.

The core of the new accountability model is the so-called  ‘empowered community’, that will function as an unincorporated association and will be able to enforce a set of ‘community powers’, such as removing members of the ICANN Board, rejecting ICANN budgets, or rejecting changes to the ICANN bylaws. This entity will act as instructed by the ‘decisional participants’ – most of ICANN’s supporting organisations and advisory committees (bodies representing the interests of Internet users, the private sector, the technical community, and governments).

In order to ensure a more active and consistent engagement of the community in ICANN’s decision making processes, the Board is required to engage in an extensive engagement process with the community before making major decisions on issues such as strategic and operating plans, modifications to ICANN bylaws, or reviews of the IANA functions. If the community is not satisfied with the results of such processes, it can exercise one of its powers. As a last resort mechanism, if the community decides to remove Board members or recall the entire Board, but the Board refuses to comply with such a decision, a claim can be brought in a court that has jurisdiction to force compliance with the decision.

What is the current situation?

Over the past few months, several steps have been made towards the transition. The PTI legal entity has been legally incorporated, under the name Public Technical Identifiers, and is ready to start performing the IANA functions once the contract between ICANN and the USG expires.

A new set of ICANN bylaws has been adopted, to reflect the recommendations outlined in the accountability proposal; they will only become effective at the moment of the transition. ICANN has also conducted a technical test on how the root zone management system would function if the US government authorisation step is removed, and has found that the system would be error free.

As the date of the expiration of the USG-ICANN contract is fast approaching, the debate on whether the transition should or should not happen on 1 October seems to get more and more intense. On 8 September, the chairmen of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees in the US Senate and House of Representatives sent a letter to the US Attorney General and the Department of Commerce Secretary, asking them to reconsider the plans to transition the IANA functions on 1 October.

On 13 September, several technology companies and trade associations (including Google, Yahoo, Amazon, and Facebook, among others) wrote to to the US Congress to express their support for the transition, and to ask the Congress not to delay the transition date. On 14 September, a hearing was convened in the US Congress, at the initiative of Sen. Ted Cruz (a constant opposer of the transition), with the aim to investigate the possible dangers of the transition. There have been many other debates, letters, and editorials that have addressed the IANA stewardship transition issue over the past few weeks.

Read the second post of this two-part series.

1 reply
  1. Neal McBurnett
    Neal McBurnett says:

    Excellent and brief(!) overview – thank you!!
    You’ve done a great job of taking a highly complex situation and summarizing it. Thank you!

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