US Congress in cash freeze bid to DERAIL global DNS handover

More bad politics as internet heads in a partisan direction

US Congress has attempted to stall ceding control of the world's domain-name system – by defunding the government department responsible.

The crucial IANA contract to provide global DNS, allocate IP addresses, and so on, is due to expire in 2015. ICANN runs those IANA functions for the American government under that contract. The US Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is in charge of transitioning Uncle Sam from the whole process, potentially leaving ICANN running the vital IANA body by itself.

As one of a number of nearly 100 Republican riders in the $1tr omnibus spending bill [PDF] passed yesterday in order to prevent the government from shutting down, section 540 specifically denies that the funds approved can be used by the NTIA to "relinquish [its] responsibility… with respect to Internet domain name system functions… and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority [IANA] functions."

A second section notes that the provision will expire on 30 September 2015 – the date the IANA contract expires and the planned-for deadline for when a new overseer, be it ICANN or someone else, will take over.

The rider indicates that the issue is becoming an increasingly partisan one, bringing with it all the usual bad politics and poor policy.

The defunding will not prevent the transition from happening since it is a contract due to expire. It costs nothing for that to happen. Equally, the measure will not prevent NTIA officials from interacting and communicating with ICANN or IANA or the internet community, since that is a core part of its job.

What the measure will do – which works in absolutely no one's favor – is prevent the NTIA from holding special meetings to discuss the transition. Considering that the plan is likely to go ahead regardless, this could end up being a disservice to all internet users since the NTIA has significant and specific expertise and may be prevented from sharing that effectively in the planning stages for moving the IANA functions to a different entity.

In addition to the focused defunding, there is also language in a related "explanatory memo" produced by "Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies" that put conditions on the possible transition.

It requires the NTIA to give Congress "not less than 45 days" advance notice of a "proposed successor contract or any other decision related to changing NTIA's role with respect to ICANN or IANA activities". And requires it at the same time to submit a report that outlines "any recourse that would be available to the United States if the decision is made to transition to a new contract and any subsequent decisions made following such transfer of Internet governance are deleterious to the United States."

This is a perfectly reasonable request, but it may make for a very shaky and politically extremely loud last month before any transition occurs.

As we outlined earlier this week, a Republican party line is starting to emerge over the IANA transition that is, unfortunately, highly inaccurate. The appearance of this rider in the funding bill also shows it is starting to get serious attention. It has already sparked a war of words between the official responsible, Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Strickling, and Wall Street Journal columnist Gordin Crovitz.

Meanwhile, the one issue likely to hold up the transition – and which caused Strickling last week to say he was prepared to extend the contract for up to four years – is the late start of an accountability review team looking into how ICANN's decision-making processes can be improved.

The group only had its first meeting yesterday, despite the transition announcement having been made eight months ago. According to the meeting minutes, the team discussed its membership, working methods, set up four sub-committees and produced a timeline. ®

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