The process to move oversight of the world's DNS system away from the US government is heading to Congress with a hearing scheduled for later this month.
On 25 February, the Senate's commerce committee will run a session called "Preserving the Multistakeholder Model of Internet Governance".
The session will feature the man in charge of the transition, Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Strickling, plus the bloke who will benefit the most from the transition, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, and former state department official David Gross.
At stake is who will run IANA – the technical body that oversees the allocation of IP addresses and runs the heart of the DNS system that glues the internet together; ICANN operates the IANA functions under contract from Uncle Sam, but that agreement is coming to an end. Now ICANN wants sole control.
"As the US government considers relinquishing control over certain aspects of Internet governance to the private sector, concerns remain that the loss of US involvement over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) could empower foreign powers - acting through intergovernmental institutions or other surrogates - to gain increased control over critical Internet functions," reads the session's agenda.
As such the hearing "will examine the potential benefits and preparedness of non-governmental actors to protect Internet governance functions from attempted interference by foreign governments."
Getting immediately in at the ground floor, Strickling published a blog post on the NTIA website reiterating the fears of foreign governments seizing greater control of the internet, and highlighting exactly why the process his department put together will ensure that that doesn't happen.
(NTIA is the bit inside the US Department of Commerce that oversees the IANA contract.)
"The Internet’s stakeholders are driving this transition and are demonstrating that businesses, technical experts, and civil society groups are best equipped to set the future direction of the Internet," he wrote. "Under this multistakeholder model, no one party can control the Internet or impose its will."
What's more, with some in Congress (and outside) arguing that the whole process needs to be stopped or at least slowed down significantly, Strickling argues that it has to be completed for the very reason that other claim it has to be stopped:
It is so important that we get this transition right. If it doesn’t take place, we will embolden authoritarian regimes to seek greater government control of the Internet or to threaten to fragment the Internet, which would result in a global patchwork of regulations and rules that stifle the free flow of information.
In other words: everyone in America agrees that we have to protect that internet from evil dictators and authoritarian governments, it’s just that they have diametrically opposite views on how to achieve that goal.
Strickling, the NTIA, the internet community and, of course, ICANN all agree that using the "multistakeholder" model where all parties have an equal say is the best solution to avoid undue government influence. One of the principles that Strickling outlined for the transition to occur was that the US government's current overseer role is not replaced "by a government or intergovernmental organization".
Congressional Republicans are less sure and are adopting an increasingly partisan stance that argues that any move away from the US government risks giving power to China, Russia, Iran etc.
The Senate hearing does appearing to be taking a softer line than most issues associated with ICANN, however. The title of "Preserving the Multistakeholder Model of Internet Governance" is far less aggressive than some of the rhetoric that has been going around Washington, and the fact that the panel has not been stacked against the NTIA and ICANN is an indication that the hearing won't be a kangaroo court.
That said, a House hearing is also expected very soon which is likely to take a more negative stance of the question of the IANA transition. ®