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First Congress, now top govt watchdog digs into ICANN's internet grab

We reveal the key questions US auditors are asking over IANA takeover

It's not just US Senators digging into ICANN's takeover of the internet's control panel.

America's powerful Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been asked to interview key people in Washington DC over the proposed move – and the results are likely to form the basis for a number of hearings in the new year.

And we managed to get hold of a copy of the questions on GAO's mind.

To recap, domain-name system overseer ICANN is paid a dollar every few years by the US government to run the crucial IANA body – an organization within ICANN that keeps the internet as we know it glued together. That contract allows America to keep ICANN in check. But come 2015, Uncle Sam's contract with ICANN runs out, leaving the nonprofit with the keys to run the whole shebang and little US oversight.

A sub-group of ICANN's community is in Frankfurt, Germany, right now drawing up plans for sliding control of IANA out of the arms of the US government.

Meanwhile, auditors at the independent GAO are considering the risks involved in the move, which was initiated by the US Department of Commerce's NTIA body.

The GAO was asked by the chairmen of two congressional panels – the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Communications and Technology Subcommittee – to review NTIA's plans to hand the keys to ICANN.

The auditors will put two broad questions and 10 finer questions to people with expertise in the field of internet governance. The two framing questions are:

  1. What potential risks have been identified related to transferring NTIA's role over certain domain name functions to the private sector?
  2. To what extent do NTIA's criteria for evaluating proposals address any identified risks related to this transition?

As to the interview questions, the most interesting are:

  • How would you describe the current US role with regard to these domain name functions? (According to NTlA, it has a clerical and stewardship role, while other stakeholders have described NTIA's role as an important "backstop" that ensures stability of the Internet.)
  • NTIA has stressed recent improvements to ICANN's transparency and accountability. What problems were there in ICANN's operations, how has the implementation of recent recommendations improved things, and how do these issues relate to NTIA's proposed transition?
  • What are the potential risks, if any, of transitioning NTIA's role to a multi-stakeholder community in the near and long-term?
  • What factors should be considered for evaluating transition proposals? To what extent do NTIA's identified criteria address potential risks?

All reasonable questions. They will likely be used by the Republican-led Congress next year to pressure for a delay in the transition of the IANA contract and to find holes in ICANN or the NTIA's process in order to raise questions over whether it should proceed at all. Some Republicans fear control of the internet will slip into the hands of America's enemies.

There have been efforts to delay the transition until the GAO reports (something the NTIA strenuously opposes [PDF]), with the DOTCOM Act specifically drawn up to prevent transition until there was a full review.

The big risk of course is that Congress will seek to make the transition a partisan politics issue – which it is already doing over net neutrality – when it really should be a discussion on the real merits of transitioning and the best way to do it.

In that sense, while the news of the Defending Internet Freedom Act has served to irritate large sections of the internet community – thanks to American politicians claiming ownership of a global network that is run almost exclusively on private networks – it has some merits.

For example, the actual details within the legislation fairly closely reflect what the broader internet community has been trying to impose on ICANN without much success for over a decade. ®

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