Global Oversight For Internet; US Role In Core Infrastructure Unchanged

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A mere “affirmation of commitments” between the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the United States Department of Commerce has replaced the decade-old joint project agreement in place in different forms since ICANN started technical coordination of names and numbers on the net in 1998. There are mixed reviews.

“We’re going global,” declared ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom upon the new arrangement’s announcement on 30 September. The affirmation of commitments (AoC), available here, shifts oversight of ICANN from Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to several multi-stakeholder review panels. In Beckstrom’s eyes, ICANN is now more independent from the US administration. It will report to the world, instead of only to the US Commerce Department (which answers to the US Congress).

While many observers including European Union officials like Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding applauded the long-awaited move towards more international oversight, experts also pointed to the fact that management of the internet’s root zone file, the core infrastructure of the internet domain name system (DNS), will continue to be under Commerce Department oversight.

“Of course, the IANA contract, which still gives the US a unilateral, life-or-death power over ICANN’s authority over the DNS root zone file, is unchanged by this,” ICANN expert and academic Milton Mueller noted on his blog about the AoC. The IANA contract is unrelated to the AoC, acknowledged Beckstrom. Yes, he said, a rebid for the IANA contract would be possible.

Asked what the affirmation document would bring in practical terms, Beckstrom told Intellectual Property Watch that it would in the first place bring more work given the considerable larger review activities. The first of the four planned reviews, the one checking ICANN’s performance in “accountability, transparency and the interests of the global users” must be finished by 31 December 2010, according to the AoC.

ICANN Board Chairman, Peter Dengate Thrush, is the ex officio convener and member of the first review team. But Beckstrom must prepare for the other three, which will cover security and stability, competition and consumer trust, and the much-debated enforcement of open Whois standards (the Whois data is the contact information behind every website). Each review will be undertaken again every three years.

ICANN leadership, as they select review team members from governments, ICANN stakeholders and independent experts, will be joined by the chairman of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), who also will have a seat on all review teams. How much influence by governments this will mean is difficult to say, but at least European officials including the EU presidency see a strengthened role for governments and the GAC and applaud this. The importance of the GAC – and US willingness to work as a GAC member – is confirmed in paragraph six of the AoC, a slight bow to international governments.

Yet there also is a bow toward the ICANN “fatherland” and more concretely to concerns US politicians from both parties had raised over the last month. ICANN in the AoC committed to keep its headquarters in the United States. The US administration keeps one privileged, fixed seat in the accountability review panel, this also was addressing a major concern of US politicians, said Beckstrom. And, finally the AoC is a quasi-perpetual agreement, contrary to earlier agreements that were renewed constantly. Whether this perpetual agreement is what US politicians seeking legislation for the same meant is an open question.

Representative Henry Waxman (Democrat, California), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Rick Boucher (Democrat, Virginia), chairman of the Communications, Technology, and the Internet Subcommittee, in their press release applauded the AoC. The agreement is “perfect example of how a public-private partnership can work to the advantage of all stakeholders,” said Waxman. Comments from both Waxman and Boucher went up immediately on the ICANN website dedicated to early, and overall positive, reactions to the deal. Potential critics did not appear to have been given early access to the agreement.

So, has ICANN finally hit the target, as Beckstrom said in his video-post on the ICANN website? The joint project agreement has concluded and some oversight shifted to new multi-stakeholder bodies. But in the end a lot depends, according to Mueller, on how review teams will be selected and how reviews will be dealt with. The discussion on what new top-level domains TLDs will be allowed to be applied for in the future might be a first hard test for the “free” ICANN.

The Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA), a coalition of US companies including Verizon, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, which recently complained (IPW, Information and Communications Technology, 29 September 2009) about ICANN’s opening up of the internet domain name space and asked for oversight of the organisation by the US Department of Homeland Security, said in a press release the AoC has “missed the mark by failing to create accountability.”

The agreement did not endow the entities “charged with overseeing ICANN with the power necessary to ensure that ICANN follows through with recommendations and commitments,” CADNA warned.

ICANN itself obviously also is prepared for more debate with US legislators: a current job opening for a “Vice President Government Affairs (Americas)” is expected “to lead the design and execution of government affairs strategies to advise and educate members of Congress, congressional staffers, key policymakers, and federal regulatory officials about ICANN” and “to develop and implement an aggressive strategic plan for successfully achieving specific legislative and policy results that are favourable to ICANN.”

Monika Ermert may be reached at

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  1. Thierry Moreau says

    Indeed, as long as the IANA contract is in force according to its latest terms, the US government role is unchanged in some fundamental aspects.

    But as we comment on the impact of the AoC, there is no primary source (i.e. a specific NTIA or ICANN press release) supporting the fact that the IANA contract has been extended beyond the end of last month (Milton’s words are just his, I did bring his attention to the specific page on NTIA web page where the latest IANA contract extension is absent).

    Being reluctant to take the IANA extension for granted based on secondary sources, I find it strange that NTIA, apparently so dedicated to transparency and Internet stability, omits to indicate the current arrangements for the IANA function!


    – Thierry Moreau

  2. Thierry Moreau says

    An update:

    NTIA has made public the IANA contract extension to September 30, 2010. The announcement itself has been back-dated from today or yesterday to last September 1st. No further comment. (

    Still up to 30 months to go!

    The TLD operators community has some wishes for operational improvements which can hardly be met with the current institutional arrangement.


    – Thierry Moreau


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