Byron Holland is the CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, which manages the .ca domain, as well as the chair of ICANN’s country code name supporting organization.
This week, the leading minds in the Internet governance world are in Singapore for the fifty-second meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Generally speaking, ICANN meetings aren’t events marked by high drama or intense conflict, but this gathering may be different.
Since the March 2014 announcement by the U.S. government of its intent to transfer its stewardship role over certain technical Internet-related functions (what are commonly called the IANA functions), the global Internet community has been engaged in an almost year-long debate over the entity that should assume that role. The IANA functions have been performed by the California-based ICANN under contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce since 1998, and this change of stewards is one of the most significant events in the history of the modern Internet. While the deadline for a proposal to the U.S. government is fast-approaching, the community has yet to come to a consensus on what that entity should be.
At the risk of aggrandizing our work, I would posit that the Internet governance community is faced with an amazing opportunity. With the IANA stewardship transition, we are building the foundation for a truly global Internet, one that is open and inclusive, and has the potential to bring its social and economic benefits to the entire world.
A thirty-member IANA Stewardship Transition Coordinating Group was established by ICANN to oversee the process. That group, known as the ICG, instructed three ICANN constituencies—names (e.g. domain name operators and related stakeholders), numbers (e.g. registries that allocate Internet protocol addresses) and protocols (e.g. organizations which set the technical standards that allow the Internet to function)—to submit proposals representing their unique perspectives on the transition. Once received, the ICG was to bring those proposals into a single, cohesive proposal to the U.S. government for implementation ahead of the September 30, 2015, expiration of the current contract with ICANN to perform the IANA functions.
The deadline for community proposals to be submitted to the ICG has come and gone. While the numbers and protocols community were able to meet it, the ICG is waiting on a finalized proposal from the Cross Community Working Group on Naming Related Functions (CWG)—the working group tasked with developing the names constituency’s proposal. Since the CWG released a draft version of their proposal for public comment in December 2014, the mechanisms they identified to assume the U.S. government’s role have been met with mixed reviews.
An entity referred to as the Contract Company was proposed by the CWG as the contractee in a post-U.S. government Internet ecosystem. The Contract Co. is described as an entity created by the multistakeholder community that exists only to enter into a contract for the performance of the IANA functions (supported by a multistakeholder oversight body and an appeals process). The very nature of a contract means that it can be revoked—the longstanding corrective mechanism currently held by the U.S. government (the proverbial ‘big stick’) if the IANA functions operator were to act in an irresponsible manner.
Recent discussions online and elsewhere demonstrate that the idea of a Contract Co. may not have the support of the broad Internet community given that the creation of new entities could complicate and potentially interfere with the routine process of updating the domain name system. Given the decision-making process is based on rough consensus, some community members believe the proponents of a Contract Co. need to go back to the drawing board.
A second option, referred to as “internal to ICANN,” has been mentioned by some in the names constituency. In this approach, any new bodies or organizations would be created within the existing ICANN structure. Variants of this option were included in alternate proposals that have been put forward, and some community members have publicly expressed their support for this type of entity. Critics of the “internal to ICANN” option argue that the absence of an external reviewer, such as a Contract Co. or the U.S. government, removes a tool to ensure that ICANN remains accountable to the global Internet community. In order to do this right, I believe we need a deep analysis of the options that are presented—the Contract Co., internal to ICANN and any other plausible options that arise. This will take the allocation of sufficient time and resources, both in short supply.
If the global Internet community fails to devise an acceptable solution, the consequences could be dire. Some in the community have pointed out that should the IANA transition not happen, it could be held up as a failure of the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.
There is a tension between those of us who believe that the Internet’s success is, at least in part, due to the manner in which it is governed and certain nations (including China and Russia) that would prefer to have a multilateral model in place. This tension has played out in a tangible way in various United Nations forums, including the International Telecommunication Union.
The free and open Internet does not need a perceived failure of its fundamental governance structure as we head into discussions about global ICT infrastructure at the World Summit on the Information Society+10 conference and the UN General Assembly later this year. The results could be damaging. We would be putting the Internet at some risk, including its value to the economy—the Boston Consulting Group estimates it to grow to $4.2 trillion in the G20 by 2016—and its immeasurable value in terms of social development.
The upcoming ICANN meeting in Singapore presents an opportunity for constructive dialogue on the key issues facing the Internet governance community. We must move forward with a realistic and operational alternative to the role the U.S. government has historically played—something that will take time and resources. We need to discuss timelines. Are we, as the global Internet community going to meet the September 30 deadline set by the U.S. government? The community is divided on this point, but I see no harm is having a conversation about a potential plan B, and having it sooner rather than later.
If we want to do this right, we need a properly resourced process with realistic timelines. We will be in a stronger position come September 30 if we are well down the road toward developing and assessing an acceptable proposal, instead of having developed something too feverishly that may not work.