Governing the Net: America stirs the debate
20 Mar 2014| and

Steve Crocker, Vint Cerf and Paul Mockapetris during a panel discussion at ICANN 48 in Buenos Aires.  The announcement by the US Department of Commerce that it intends to transfer the last of its official responsibilities for the DNS to ICANN will surely form a large part of the debate at the upcoming ICANN 49 in Singapore on 23 March.

Lost in the Friday news dump was a surprise announcement from the US Department of Commerce (DOC) that will have a catalytic impact on an already energised Internet governance debate. DOC agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), announced its intention to transition the last of its official responsibilities over the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Although this move has officially been in the works since 1997, this hand over will cede the final, if largely symbolic, element of American internet management. This piece is the first in ‘Governing the Net’, a blog series that will explore the dynamics that have shaped the Internet governance debate and understand how it might progress.

The US was instrumental in developing the foundational structures through which the modern Internet has developed, leaving it with a lasting legacy role in ICANN. The relationship with the US government provided crucial legitimacy to ICANN in its early days. This link has become increasingly symbolic; the contract between DOC and ICANN has seen the latter function with incredible autonomy, with the US having no official statutory role in the daily operations or governance of ICANN. Despite this, the Internet governance debate has been distorted by the rhetoric of states seeking to alter existing mechanisms. In December an Indian government internal note stated that the ‘control of the Internet was in the hands of the US government’, in February the European Commission called for a transition away from the ‘US-centric’ model, and China and Russia have long questioned American ‘hegemony’ in Internet governance.

The 14 March announcement requests that ICANN develop a proposal to transition the NTIA role in the coordination of the DNS. The DNS lies at the heart of the Internet. Just as the Dewey Decimal System classifies a library collection to facilitate access to a book, so does the DNS enable your request to go to by consulting a master list of web addresses to link your browser to the server on which this website sits. The highest part of the DNS hierarchy is the root zone file which handles the top-level domains—such as .com, .net and .org—and is managed through the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function. In 1997, this function was shifted to ICANN and began to operate under a contract with DOC, which performed a largely procedural role, administering the contract and any changes to the authoritative root zone file. It’s these limited residual authorities that will shift under this transition plan.

The guiding principles for the proposal are relatively open-ended. It must: ‘support and enhance the multi-stakeholder model; maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS; meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and, maintain the openness of the Internet’. This broad guidance actually reinforces US confidence in, and commitment to, the existing ICANN system. It’s likely there will be little substantive change to the existing governance structure under the proposal, with ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé stating that ‘there will no new organisation or an organisation to replace the role of the United States.’ Moreover, directing ICANN to develop the proposal has allowed the US to set the terms of the debate moving forward, undercutting critics of the multi-stakeholder governance model.

The impact of this announcement will be seen as soon as 23 March, when ICANN 49 meets in Singapore. The first of three meetings in 2014, this forum will mark the beginning of the conversation on how the transition will take place. The announcement represents a seismic shift in the larger debate. How this shift will change the Internet governance landscape, the potential US reasoning behind this move, and the road forward are just some of the topics that the ‘Governing the Net’ blog series will explore over the coming weeks. See you next Thursday.

Klée Aiken is an analyst and David Lang is an intern in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user icannphotos.