The US government has formally approved a plan to transition control of the internet's administrative tasks to the private sector.
In an announcement Thursday, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) gave the green light to a plan developed over two years by the internet community to hand control of the critical Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) contract to Californian non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
"Today's announcement marks an important milestone in the US government's 18-year effort to privatize the Internet's domain name system," said Commerce secretary Penny Pritzker. "This transition ensures that the Internet continues to flourish as a platform for innovation, economic growth and free expression."
ICANN has run the IANA functions – which cover the highest level of internet: the DNS, IP addresses, and internet protocols – since the day it was incorporated in 1999, but through a contract awarded repeatedly to it by the NTIA.
This plan moves the contract into ICANN's hands and so removes the US government from its position of direct control – an important change in an ever more global internet.
Following the formal approval, the transition is in line to be completed by the end of the current IANA contract – 30 September 2016.
The announcement has been met with cautious optimism by the internet community.
"This is good news and an important milestone. It is ... one more step to ensure the long-term health of a free and open Internet," said the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in a statement. Although it added: "The implementation efforts related to the plan are ongoing. As always, the Internet community needs to take care of the IANA system on a continuous basis."
The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), the Internet Association, and the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition) signed a joint statement which read: "The internet economy applauds NTIA for its deliberative and thorough work reviewing the ICANN transition proposals, [which] provide the internet with the best path forward for self governance."
Again however, they note: "We will remain engaged and vigilant as the transition proceeds to ensure the continued success of the multistakeholder model."
"Father of the internet" Vint Cerf, who was chairman of ICANN for many years, also welcomed the decision and gave some history behind the IANA functions in an article – but not without also declaring some "trepidation" over the plan's complexity and noting that "there is still a good deal of work ahead to actually implement what is ultimately approved."
And the Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG) said the decision was "an important step toward ensuring that no one entity can exert undue influence or control over the Internet," while warning about potential delays: "We now call upon the US government to adopt that plan ... Failure to do so will send the wrong message to the international community, increase distrust, and will likely encourage some governments to pursue their own national or even regional internets."
That warning is in response to continued efforts by a small group of Republican congressmen opposed to the move, out of fear that it could give other governments such as China and Russia undue influence on the internet's future evolution.
One, Ted Cruz, has put forward a new bill called the Protecting Internet Freedom Act, that would "prevent the Obama administration from giving the Internet away to a global organization that will allow over 160 foreign governments to have increased influence over the management and operation of the Internet."
Last month, Senator Marco Rubio was behind a letter, signed by a small number of other Congressmen, that asked the NTIA to delay the transition until the changes proposed in the plan could be tested out.
And Congressmen have, for the third time, included a rider in a must-pass finance bill that would prevent the NTIA from using any funds to aid the transition.
Despite those efforts, however, the plan is expected to pass.
Despite the official green light and the joy expressed by the internet community over the fact that the US government's role will finally be pulled out of the internet's functioning, the reality, as repeatedly expressed in broad terms, is that people are still very unhappy with the organization that will take over the functions – ICANN.
As we have covered in some detail, ICANN has fiercely resisted any effort to impose greater transparency and accountability on it, and although the US government has approved the plan, it will not be in a position to ensure that what is written down actually happens in reality.
ICANN has been through no fewer than eight previous reviews and efforts to change its approach and culture, each having achieved only small, incremental improvements. ICANN's staff and board also succeeded over the course of the two-year discussions to remove or blunt all proposals that would have made changes that limited their control.
In its place, the internet community is relying on highly procedural, overly complex processes to bring about change: something that the organization's staff have successfully navigated in the past.
It is worth noting that in the NTIA's extensive review documentation, it gives a persistent [PDF] "yellow light" – meaning "criteria component partially met" – to the new structure that will be developed to hold the IANA contract, a body that will be a subsidiary of ICANN but whose functioning is still an open question.
And the independent experts brought in to assess the proposed accountability and transparency changes to ICANN make repeated mention of the fact that the processes are complicated, untested and not currently in place. "While few organizations would find such an extremely complex framework attractive...," they note in their report [PDF].
Later: "Throughout the Recommendations, we see the choice to emphasize consensus and dialogue over expediency and efficiency."
And later: "We feel confident that the Recommendations, should they be implemented, incorporate strong protections." (Our emphasis.)
The report also notes: "Although the recommendations demonstrate a strong commitment to auditing and transparency, in some narrow areas [they] commit only to improving accountability in the future." Those "narrow areas" are notable by the fact that they directly impact staff: document disclosure and an effective whistleblowing policy being just two.
The endemic problems at ICANN, which are most strongly reflected in its staff and board's intransigence, have also started spreading to the broader ICANN community – a community that is increasingly reliant on the organization's financial support. Over the course of the IANA transition plan's development, that community settled for untested convoluted decision-making processes over solid reform.
The NTIA's independent report paints that reality in the most positive terms: "While this emphasis on multistakeholder processes, dialogue, and consensus might not be well-suited for companies that prioritize efficiency and profits, or nonprofits that pursue a singular mission on behalf of a single, well-defined constituency, they are well-matched to the special needs and role of ICANN."
In other words, it is what it is. ®