IANA Accountability Transition: A Russian View from Singapore

05.04.2014

On Friday, March 28, 2014 the 49th Meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was concluded in Singapore. The Internet Corporation plays a key role in coordination of the work of the internet’s unique identifiers system (domain names and IP addresses). In other words, ICANN ensures the work of at least two critical levels of the internet infrastructure, without which the Global Net could neither exist nor function.

Among the issues discussed at the ICANN Meeting, one stands out and potentially goes beyond the range of highly technical issues relevant for dedicated technical experts. This issue is related to the recent statement of an Executive Branch agency under the umbrella of the US Department of Commerce: the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA). On March 14, NTIA published an article on its website outlining the agency’s intent to “transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community.”

Some brief explanations are necessary to understand the meaning and significance of this statement. Coordination of the functions of the Internet’s critical infrastructure is integrated into rather unique organizational framework. Probably, no direct analogues to this model could be found in the practice of international institutions. One of the central elements of this model is ICANN, the Internet Corporation, which is neither a business corporation nor an international organization in the usual sense of these terms.

Existing within the legal framework of the state of California as a nonprofit corporation, ICANN has built its activities within the model of a multistakeholder approach, or as it is approximately developed in Russian, “governance with participation of all interested actors (stakeholders)”. Roughly speaking, the aim of this model is to ensure that the composition of the ICANN governing bodies includes representatives of all major stakeholder groups interested in participation in the internet governance processes. Those include governments, business, civil society, as well as technical experts and the global community of end-users of the internet.

The most important feature of this model is the absence of the casting vote right of representatives of national governments in the policy- and decision making process, which puts them at an equal footing with all other stakeholders. Governments do not have the right to accept or promote decisions to bypass the views of other stakeholders. Thus, the purpose of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) of ICANN is only “to provide advice to ICANN on issues of public policy”; however, the GAC recommendations still might effectively be ignored by the ICANN Board and CEO. Such precedents already took place: in 2011, in defiance of the GAC, ICANN ultimately approved the launch of the “.xxx” domain zone for legal porno content.

At the same time, one government has historically been in a special relationship with ICANN and unsurprisingly it’s the United States. Before ICANN was founded in 1998, with the development and commercialization of the internet the US authorities had already decided to start transition of the existing critical internet infrastructure to the community which actually worked at ground zero of the internet – the community of technical experts. Following a long, multistage process launched in 1997, the situation gradually came to its present state. Today, relations between ICANN and the US government (represented by the Department of Commerce) are governed primarily by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) contract for $0 from July 2, 2012 (expires on September 30, 2015), which grants ICANN the authority to perform major DNS system management functions on behalf of the US Government.

According to the Contract, the US Government exercises oversight over critical IANA functions, which are implemented by ICANN specialists. In particular, the NTIA approves ICANN requests to make changes to the content of the DNS root zone file, a type of a “catalog” of names and IP addresses of the authoritative DNS servers for all top-level domains (TLDs). Under the contract, ICANN also provides regularly reports to NTIA about the implementation of these functions. The NTIA has to the authority to conduct inspections to verify that ICANN is performing these functions.

Quite often certain references can be found to the IANA being a separate legal entity, or an ICANN subsidiary organization; this is not quite the case. At the present stage IANA has no legal personality and is comprised of a group of technical experts performing the abovementioned set of functions and acting in the framework of the Internet Corporation as one of ICANN’s departments. Moreover, the aforementioned contract from 2012 formally refers to IANA as 

What functions are we talking about and why are they so important? There are four main tasks: 1) coordination of assigning technical protocol parameters, on which the Internet works; 2) administration of the DNS root zone file and several other functions related to the DNS root server system; 3) proper delegation and distribution of Internet resource addresses - high level domain names and IP address blocks; and 4) management of the top level domain “.int” (reserved for intergovernmental organizations) and the top level domain“.arpa” (reserved for special technical usage related to maintaining the DNS system’s functionality). Without going into too many details, one key note should be made here: non-performance or improper performance of any of these functions (with certain reservations regarding #4) will cause a global malfunction of the Internet, which makes IANA functions absolutely critical.

It is a combination of a) centralization of these critical functions and their implementation technically from one point together with b) their management within a specific institutional framework – that brings international political accents into what otherwise seems to be a purely technical process. The fact is that a number of countries, including Russia, consider the above-described mechanism as an imperfect modus operandi for global internet governance, particularly because of the concentration of control in American hands without enough participation by other nation states. Since 1998, Russia’s MFA has been calling for a review of the existing model and the transfer of selected - or all IANA functions to the international community, which is understood to mean firstly a global intergovernmental platform such as the UN or one of its special agencies. Since that time, certain developments took place and increased the readiness of Russia and other countries sharing its view to participate in ICANN’s work. But on the fundamental level, the question has never gone away – debate around it has actually intensified, as seen in the discussions at the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in December 2012.

It is in this context that the NTIA statement and subsequent discussion at the conference in Singapore should be considered and evaluated. Noteworthy, the first relation of quite many observers from various countries including the United States was: “America is going to surrender the keys to global internet governance to everyone willing, including Russia and China.” It is curious, then, that such alarmist comments about the “usurpation of Internet control by authoritarian governments” has been heard from American members of Congress and in the pages of such respected newspapers as the Wall Street Journal and some other media. One thing that could pour fuel on the fire is that at the GAC meeting in Singapore on March 23, a Chinese representative actively supported and welcomed the NTIA statement on behalf of the Chinese government. Also, the representative expressed China’s willingness to work on developing the proposals for the implementation of IANA oversight transition from the US to the “global stakeholder community.”

Meanwhile, the alarmism about overtake of the Internet by some “autocratic governments” raises some serious doubts. At the same GAC meeting in Singapore a US government official - Lawrence Strickling, Head of the NTIA and Assistant Secretary of State for Communications and Information - stated in plain language that the US would not accept any proposal in which control over coordinating the DNS system would be given to any government or intergovernmental organization. He also stressed in his speech that a new mechanism should be founded on a multistakeholder approach. In this regard, it is important to understand that the US has the possibility to choose and has no fundamental constraints on how it can choose the new oversight mechanism.

Yes, the process of the oversight transition has objectively matured, and the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 only acted as its additional catalyst. Throwing a serious shadow over the USA in the field of internet governance and use of the Net, the Snowden scandal definitely prompted the Department of Commerce to force the process. Further delay would mean increased politicization of the international debate around ICANN itself regarding its formal dependence on the US with its reputation undermined by global electronic surveillance programs.

Here is one of the main motivations of the US administration’s statement on March 14: to separate the international debate about its own faults on the Internet from the discussion about ICANN and its management of critical DNS functions. One should assume that this approach fully meets ICANN’s interests. No wonder ICANN President and CEO Fadi Chehadé announced the need to withdraw ICANN from American oversight at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in October 2013 at the height of the international hype surrounding Snowden.

However, if in the near future proposals to establish a new mechanism for IANA functions oversight are not made or are strongly against the interests of the White House, nothing too terrible will happen for the United States. The NTIA/ICANN contract expires on September 30, 2015, but provisions exist for two possible extensions until September 30, 2017, and September 30, 2019. In addition, no one can “take” these responsibilities from the NTIA until the agency itself allows it. The process is reversible, and its course and result depend wholly on the quality and content of proposals received - this is one of the key messages the US Department of Commerce has been sending to all stakeholders.

Of course, no one in this is talking about the exclusion of governments from the process of shaping a new internet governance mechanism. However, the president of ICANN had to specifically stress the fact that without participation of different governments, the entire initiative fails to gain legitimacy.

A much more difficult question surrounds how an optimal mechanism for the DNS administration and maintenance oversight could actually be organized and look like in legal and institutional senses. At the ICANN Meeting in Singapore, the consensus unsurprisingly came down to the absence of any ready ideas and decisions for the moment.

But the major intrigue of the year tied to Internet governance has been woven: who will be able to work out the best proposal for the oversight transition and what will it actually look? First, it is unclear whether any new organizational entity should be established, just from the logic of formal necessity of a legal entity to which NTIA could “pass” the oversight powers. In Singapore, one could hear a variety of different ideas on this thread: from the expansion of the mandate of the IGF (which was founded under the auspices of the UN in the framework of the WSIS process) to the formation of a new “quasi-international” non-state organization similar to FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, to even the transfer of controlling powers to a neutral state like Switzerland.

In the meantime, as ICANN representatives noted in the course of the Singapore Meeting, creation of some new entity would not necessarily be the best choice and perhaps solutions could be offered within the framework of the already existing multistakeholder mechanism of internet governance. The question then becomes how to reliably oversight authorities from those who are oversighted, if both will be acting in the framework of the open multistakeholder mechanism, which hardly implies any entry barriers for anyone interested. How to avoid conflicts of interest and collisions of competences?

Despite the interesting questions surrounding the official Russian position, it has been largely reduced to silent observation following the ongoing discussions. In fact, the situation is quite fascinating: on one hand, withdrawing the oversight of the critical Internet infrastructure functions from the US has been an important task of Russian foreign policy since 1998. On the other hand, the Foundations of  Russia’s State Policy in the Field of International Information Security to 2020 – a milestone doctrinal document signed by President Putin in July 2013 – explicitly urge the “internationalization of the Internet governance and the increase of the role of the International Telecommunications Union in this process”. Above all, the aim is to ensure the role of intergovernmental mechanisms to oversight the management of the Internet’s “roots”. This is primarily because the multistakeholder approach based on the government’s lack of the right to make a decision yet didn’t receive complete understanding and approval among various bodies of the Russian government. As a result, the NTIA announcement is in a strange way neither contrary to the official Russian position, nor unified with it, but somewhere in between. However, one point of criticism that could be heard now from Moscow to ICANN and the USG is that the oversight transition is belated and current actions are not decisive enough.

So, what position will Russia adopt? The question is doubly interesting because it may have to be decided quite soon. On April 23-24, the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NETMundial) will take place in São Paulo, Brazil. Participants will exchange some global initatives to restructure the existing architecture of governance and international cooperation in cyberspace, in particular on the Internet. Of course, the transfer of responsibility for IANA functions will also be in the spotlight at the conference, despite the much broader agenda, and Russia certainly does not plan on being silent on the issue. I also hope to take part in the meeting and contribute to the discussion of new ideas on behalf of PIR Center and as a member of the Russian internet community.

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In conclusion, I’d like to emphasize a rather simple and obvious idea that is still often understated in the course of major international discussions. Because the support and maintenance work on the DNS system - as well as the other IANA functions and a big part of ICANN’s work - are purely technical in nature, they neither require nor deserve politicization. Global internet governance as was defined in the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (key WSIS 2005 document), is not nearly limited to the DNS system management and “includes more than Internet naming and addressing”. It also includes the security and safety of the Internet, developmental aspects as well as social, economic and technical issues including affordability, reliability and quality of service, etc. Accordingly, the development of global policies in the field of internet governance and their coordination should rather be focused on this broader scope of issues without exclusively linking them to the management of the critical DNS infrastructure.

The US Government, for all its recent counterproductive actions such as massive misuse of the internet for the purposes of online surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, has generally established a prudent policy of non-intervention in the DNS operation. In fact, the NTIA has largely confined itself to fulfilling just the formal side of its responsibilities concerning the IANA functions. So it is vital that the process of technical management of the internet’s operation is only strengthened in its neutrality in the course of future developments or changes. The Net should not become a bargaining chip or the crux of global political strategies, whether those are conducted in the framework of an intergovernmental approach or a multistakeholder one. So it should make sense if the US Congress members stop raising alarm about a hypothetical Sino-Russian alliance usurping the Internet. At the same time, for Russian stakeholders, including the government, it might be worth carefully searching for the positive potential in the initiative announced by the US Government.

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