June 30, 2016

Internet Oversight in Transition


  • On June 9, the Obama administration approved the transition plan for some oversight of the internet away from the Department of Commerce to a global multi-stakeholder community.
  • While the federal government’s oversight of the internet was intended to be transferred to a private entity. The transition plan was delayed over concerns about the makeup, operation, security, and openness of the internet under a new regime. These concerns still exist.
  • The Department of Commerce’s contract for key internet oversight is set to expire on September 30.

Commerce Approves Internet Oversight Transition Plan

On June 9, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced approval of the transition of the government’s oversight role for the Internet Domain Name System technical functions, known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. NTIA approved this arrangement, asserting, “the proposal developed by the global Internet multistakeholder community meets the criteria NTIA outlined in March 2014 when it stated its intent to transition the U.S. oversight responsibilities.”

The transition plan will enable the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to run the DNS system independently, with oversight now performed by a new international multi-stakeholder entity. ICANN is expected to create an implementation report by August. The existing contract is set to expire on September 30 unless NTIA extends the agreement or Congress acts to delay the transition.

Internet Oversight Always Intended to go Private 

Since 1998, the NTIA has held a contract with ICANN, a California-based nonprofit, to operate key domain-name functions. In March 2014, the Department of Commerce announced plans to let that contract expire and to pass oversight responsibilities – the IANA functions – from the NTIA to a “global multistakeholder community.”

Ever since ICANN was established, it has been U.S. policy to transition responsibility for the administration of the DNS to a private entity. S. Con Res 50 of the 112th Congress, which unanimously passed the Senate and House, reaffirmed the policy “to promote a global Internet free from government control and advance the successful multistakeholer model that governs the Internet today.” It certainly has not been U.S. policy, however, to transition DNS responsibility to an unknown and unestablished private entity.

prior delays due to transition concerns

The expiration of the NTIA contract with ICANN had been set to occur in September 2015. Congress delayed the expiration because of serious concerns about how control of the internet could potentially pass to dictatorial governments. The contract is now set to expire on September 30, and the Obama administration has said it intends to stick to that deadline. The IANA system is an integral part of the DNS. Acting together, for example, this is what allows someone to type “senate.gov” into a web browser and arrive at the Senate’s website.

Last year during this discussion, Senator Thune, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced the DOTCOM Act, which was approved by the committee on a bipartisan vote. The legislation sought to make clear that any transition plan should not “replace the role of the NTIA with a government-led or intergovernmental organization.” The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 378 – 25.

RepublicanS seek to extend the Oversight Contract

In a May 24, 2016, letter to the NTIA, Senators Rubio, Blunt, Sullivan, Johnson, and Heller cautioned against allowing the transition to occur “without certainty that the proposed accountability measures are adequate and that ICANN’s new governance structure works properly.” As a result, the senators encouraged NTIA to consider an extension of its contract with ICANN to “ensure that the many changes in the transition are implemented, operate as envisioned, an do not contain unforeseen problems, oversights or complications that could undermine the multi-stakeholder model or threaten the openness, security, stability, or resiliency of the Internet.”

The Republican senators also expressed concern about the expanded role of governments in the transition proposal. Under the proposal, governments could be granted “new power and authority that they have never possessed in ICANN through the full voting participation of the Government Advisory Committee.” The increased influence of the GAC could be used by governments to pressure ICANN to act on or delay important measures. The letter emphasized that “the IANA transition should not provide an opportunity for governments to increase their influence; their role should remain advisory.”

Policy options for a Transition Plan

Chairman Thune, who has held hearings on the issue, noted on the NTIA’s official approval of the transition: “we’re skeptical still ... There’s obviously a lot of work put into this, but I think there are still a lot of questions [that are] unanswered.”

Congress must ensure that the Obama administration lives up to its own principles for any transition proposal. NTIA should not accept a government-led or an inter-governmental solution, such as the International Telecommunications Union. Whatever body administers the DNS cannot facilitate any government’s policies to suppress expression on the internet, like China, North Korea, and Cuba do. Until a proposal carrying out these principles is actually created, the U.S. should not end its role in the IANA and DNS functions through the ICANN contract.

Issue Tag: Technology