A seemingly independent panel with authority over domain name system overseer ICANN has been proposed in a new US law bill.
The Defending Internet Freedom Act [PDF], put forward by Congressman Mike Kelly (R-PA), would see the creation of a board made up of techies and reps from the domain name world, as well as a new consortium to run the critical IANA body.
(The IANA group provides the glue keeping the internet together.)
In short, the oversight panel will be filled with people from within the ICANN world, if it's ever created. No officials from governments, Russian, Chinese, American or otherwise, will be allowed to join.
This panel would be given the power to "review and to veto changes to the domain name system proposed by ICANN that the Panel considers to threaten freedom of expression, the openness, stability, resiliency, or security of the internet, responsiveness to the user community, or other commitments undertake by ICANN."
Its veto would be "final and will not be subject to the override by any director or officer of ICANN."
Meanwhile, the "IANA Consortium" would be a "private, non-profit corporation that is financed and managed by the top-level domain registries and not by ICANN."
The proposed legislation also lays out the requirement of an independent inspector general, an annual audit, adherence to freedom of information laws that apply to government, term limits for senior officers, and possibly public access to board meetings and related materials.
After introducing the bill, Kelley said: "The requirements will guarantee that the internet remains unchained and out of the grasp of bad actors and hostile powers that actively limit freedom."
What this all means
The reason for the act is that the Obama Administration announced earlier this year that the US government will let go of the IANA contract, leaving ICANN to more or less run the whole shebang.
IANA, which is part of ICANN, acts as a central pillar around which the rest of the internet binds, and acts as the net's main address book, if you will, among other things. Since about 2000, Uncle Sam has paid ICANN to operate IANA, and in 2015 it will leave ICANN to its own devices.
The US government's decision to step back has sparked intense debate not only over what to do with IANA but how to fix long-held accountability and transparency problems within ICANN itself.
Since ICANN has been the only holder of the IANA contract since its creation, the assumption is that the body will continue to be run by ICANN, but without the backstop of the US government. People are concerned that the controversial organization could run amok.
This week, in Frankfurt, a sub-group of ICANN's stakeholders are meeting to decide how to move the IANA contract, while at the same time ICANN is setting up a second group to look into accountability improvements into itself, some of which will need to be in place before the IANA contract is moved across.
Binding ICANN and the NTIA
The US Congress is not happy about the process, and so this Defending Internet Freedom Act is an effort to reassert its authority. The legislation is designed to force the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) into not releasing the IANA contract unless certain conditions are met.
The act will not make it into law given the time remaining in the current session of Congress, but it will likely serve as placeholder legislation for a Republican-run Congress to pick up in the new year.
As for the contents of the bill, many behind the scenes of the internet will applaud its contents (even if it does very closely mirror a paper put out by right-wing think tank The Heritage Foundation back in June).
The ICANN sub-group meeting to discuss the IANA contract this week will mull over five straw man proposals, all of which resemble the IANA Consortium idea put forward by the law bill.
As for the idea of an oversight committee, there have been persistent calls for such a panel that would have to power to veto ICANN board decisions – something that ICANN's staff and board have resisted for over a decade.
The additional accountability and transparency proposals in the act also closely align with proposals that have been put forward by the internet community through five different reviews stretching back eight years.
Many will be unhappy with the idea of the US Congress asserting its authority when they feel the global internet community should be in charge of deciding changes. But if the Republicans reintroduce the legislation and if it keeps in close alignment with internet community's deliberations, an act that passes would have one very clear advantage: it would legally bind the NTIA and ICANN to carry out what it contains.
For more than a decade, ICANN has proved surprisingly adept at agreeing to changes to its own accountability only to drop them at a later date. ®