Plan to End U.S. Control of ICANN Submitted to Brazil Meeting on Future of Internet Governance

Researchers at the School of Information Studies (iSchool) have released an innovative proposal to resolve the 15-year controversy over the U.S. government’s special relationship to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

icann_brazil_proposalThe proposal, which involves removing root zone management functions from ICANN and creating an independent and neutral private sector consortium to take them over, will be presented at the Singapore ICANN meeting March 21, and then formally submitted to the “NETMundial” Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance in São Paulo, Brazil, to be held April 23 and 24.

“We think this plan provides the road map for making ICANN into a truly global and multi-stakeholder institution,” says Milton Mueller, professor at the iSchool and the proposal’s co-author.

ICANN is a key institution in the global governance of the Internet. It develops policy for the domain name system and also plays an important role, with Verisign Inc., in managing the root of the Internet’s name and address spaces. Both Verisign and ICANN fulfill their respective operational and policy making roles under separate contracts with the U.S. government. ICANN’s contract with the United States is known as the IANA Functions contract.

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While the contracts are an understandable legacy of the Internet’s origins in the U.S. Defense Department and National Science Foundation contracts, the United States has maintained control of ICANN long after it promised to let go. This has invited other governments, including authoritarian ones, to demand equal oversight authority over the DNS. “Unless we take a consistent and principled approach to non-governmental Internet governance,” Mueller says, “it is only a matter of time before other governments succeed in bringing the coordination and management of the Internet under the control of intergovernmental treaty organizations.”

Dissatisfaction with the exclusive U.S. role reached a turning point in October 2013, when the directors of all the major Internet technical organizations (ICANN, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the World Wide Web Consortium, the Internet Society and all five of the regional Internet address registries) issued a statement calling for “the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, toward an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.”

Mueller’s proposal is an attempt to develop a blueprint for globalization of the IANA functions. In summary, the plan would:

  • structurally separate the IANA functions from ICANN’s policy process, and ensure that the IANA functions are never used for political or regulatory purposes;
  • integrate the DNS-related IANA functions with the Root Zone Maintainer functions performed by Verisign, and put them into a new, independent “DNS Authority” (DNSA);
  • create a nonprofit controlled by a consortium of TLD registries and root server operators to run the DNSA; and
  • complete the transition by September 2015, when the current IANA contract expires.

"It's important/essential not to conflate policy with the operation of the root zone," says Brenden Kuerbis, the co-author of the study, and a postdoctoral researcher at the iSchool. "It makes sense to put operational authority in the hands of an entity composed of the registries and root server operators, as they are directly impacted by operation of the root, and have strong incentives to ensure its stability and security."

"Contractually binding the DNSA to ICANN ensures adherence to the policy development process, and provides an important accountability function,” Kuerbis adds. “It’s an institutional design that is consistent with the multistakeholder model and achievable in the near term."

A more detailed paper outlining the proposal is available on the Internet Governance Project website. The proposal was also formally submitted to the NETMundial (Brazil) meeting on March 2.

Housed at the iSchool, the Internet Governance Project is an alliance of academics in the fields of global governance, Internet policy, and information and communication technology. The project both researches and publishes analysis of global Internet policy issues. Its goals are to:

  • inform and shape Internet public policy choices by providing independent analysis and timely recommendations;
  • identify and analyze new possibilities for improving Internet governance institutions; and
  • develop policy positions guided by the values of globalism, democratic governance and individual rights.