US Congress oils up, jumps over ropes into DNS wrestling match

New bill would give it veto rights, new amendment kills funding again

Updated The US Congress is trying to insert itself into the transition of the IANA contract from the Department of Commerce to domain-name overseer ICANN.

In an amendment that will be put before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week, the legislative branch of the US government will give itself 30 days to review the transfer and so would potentially be able to stop the IANA power handover if it passed a new bill.

It also requires that the relevant arm of the Department of Commerce, the NTIA, certify that the transfer meets the five criteria first laid out last year and, more importantly, that the NTIA certify that ICANN has approved and implemented all the bylaws changes that are contain in two upcoming reports from internet community working groups, before the transition occurs.

If the bill – which would be an amendment to Dotcom Act (H.R. 805) – is agreed, the upshot is significant. First, it would directly involve Congress in the process, and so introduce US politics into a process that the executive branch specifically excluded in order to make it manageable.

And second, it would undercut efforts by the ICANN board to claim an effective veto over any changes by saying that, without their approval, the process does not meet the full consensus requirements.

IANA: What's at stake?

The US government contracts non-profit ICANN to run the so-called IANA functions – a body that runs the highest level of the world's DNS, allocates IP addresses, and ensures developers can agree on the same numbers and protocols when writing software that communicates over the 'net. It's what keeps the internet as we know it glued together.

That crucial contract is coming to an end, and the US wants to step away from ruling the internet like an unelected king.

The IANA contract itself comprises three main functions: names, numbers and protocols. Transition plans for the later two are largely agreed but the most complex issue of names is being explored by a panel of experts called the Community Working Group (CWG). ICANN, of course, would love to run IANA all by itself, simply put.

Passage of the bill and the broader Dotcom Act is far from certain given the current climate of highly polarized politics, but the proposed amendment appears to have the support of both the chairman and ranking member on the commerce committee, suggesting bipartisan support.

And elsewhere

There are a number of other efforts going on in Congress over the IANA transition. Late last month, a revised version of the Defending Internet Freedom Act was also introduced.

It also lent support to efforts by internet community groups but added explicit requirements including that no government representatives be allowed to become directors of ICANN and that ICANN submit to the US Freedom of Information Act.

Meanwhile, Congress has repeated its actions of last year by passing an amendment to the appropriations bill that prevents the NTIA from using any funds to carry out the transfer. Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Strickling admitted last year that this amendment restricted his department's ability to act but would not prevent the IANA transfer.

While the introduction of the US Congress into the process may be useful in that it is throwing a powerful third-party at a critical decision and process, it may also come with significant downsides.

There has been very little reasoned or informed commentary on the IANA transition since it was announced. There is also a willingness to use the issue as a political football by appealing to blind patriotism and American exceptionalism.

Nuanced discussions have devolved into arm-waving about Putin and China taking over the internet – fear-mongering that is all the more likely now that we are in election season and presidential candidates have started officially declaring their intent.

It is undeniable however that Congress is interested in and may have some degree of responsibility for moving the contract away from its current home in the Department of Commerce. With Congress on side, the transition could be done more openly and with greater accountability; it is just as likely however that its involvement could turn an important process into one more pointless shouting match. ®

Updated to add

On Wednesday morning, the amendment was raised during a subcommittee hearing, and was approved. It was now pass on to the full committee.

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