A Congressional hearing yesterday addressed fears that the decision to cut ICANN loose from US governmental oversight would lead to the internet being seized by backwards regimes.
Long-term DI readers may recall that I’m usually quite snarky whenever a Congressional subcommittee convenes to pretend to be interested in ICANN — with the reason that they usually talk a lot of nonsense.
But this time the majority of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology seemed genuinely interested, surprisingly clueful, and relatively low on hyperbolic fearmongering.
The hearing was arranged due to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s March 14 decision to remove itself from the DNS root zone management triumvirate.
Whole cartloads of horse pucky have been wheeled out in response, exemplified by breathless editorials about how the world’s most repressive governments will immediately step in to fill the NTIA-shaped void.
It’s Obama’s policy of “appeasement”, designed to allow a shirtless Vladimir Putin to drive a tank directly into the root zone file, if you believe right-leaning American commentators.
There was some of that in yesterday’s hearing, but it was overshadowed by a discussion that seemed to be more interested in addressing genuine concerns and clearing up misconceptions.
Basically, Congressmen are afraid that if the NTIA leaves its role as steward of the DNS root zone, that will somehow lead to other governments taking over and internet freedoms being diminished.
How that fear manifested itself on the committee ranged from thoughtful and understandable expressions of concern and caution to wild-eyed, nonsensical, Putin-obsessed ranting.
It was the job of witnesses Larry Stricking of the NTIA, Fadi Chehade of ICANN and Ambassador David Gross, formerly of the Department of State, to reassure Congress that everything is going to be okay.
Rep. Scalise thinks Putin is magic
At the risk of being accused of sensationalism, I’m starting with the nut-job, but only to illustrate the misinformation ICANN and the NTIA have been dealing with for the last few weeks.
In a way, Rep. Steve Scalise’s portion of the hearing’s Q&A section is a microcosm of the dialogue that has been playing out in the media since the NTIA announcement.
Scalise was the guy on the committee who seems to believe that Russia and China possess the supernatural powers necessary to “take over the internet”. Red Magic, perhaps.
Here’s an exchange with Strickling and Chehade, which began when Scalise asked the panel to address concerns about authoritarian regimes taking over the internet:
STRICKLING: We won’t let that happen, number one.
SCALISE: What’s an assurance of that? It’s good to say we won’t let that happen, it’s nice to hear it, but nobody knows what’s gong to happen. You can’t tell me what’s going to happen. How do you know you won’t let it happen?
STRICKLING: I’m saying that we will not accept a proposal that has that as its outcome. Period. End of story. So it won’t happen. Second, nobody has yet explained to me the mechanism by which any of these individual governments could somehow seize control over the internet as a whole—
SCALISE: You really don’t think that Russia… Look, Russia and China have made it very clear what they want to do to suppress internet freedom. They’ve made it very clear—
STRICKLING: And they do it within their own countries—
SCALISE: At the end of the day y’all are going to come up with some sort of process if you’re going to transfer away, and I say IF — capital I, capital F — if you transfer it away you will come up with some sort of process. Do you really not thnk that Vladimir Putin, with all the other things he’s busy with right now, ain’t going to try to figure out some way to get control? It won’t be through the Russian government directly necessarily, but China and Russia have proven very resourceful at trying to figure out what that process so that they can manipulate it. You can do all the things you want to stop that from happening but at end of the day it comes out to where those countries have figured out a way, like they’ve figured out a lot of other ways too, to do something subversive that goes against all the intentions that we have. You can’t stop that.
STRICKLING: Well, Congressman, what do you think they could do that they can’t do today?
SCALISE: What do you really think…? Look at what Putin’s doing right now! The President just doesn’t seem to take this seriously what he’s doing through Eastern Europe. He’s trying to rebuild, get the old band back together, get the Soviet Union back together, right now before our very eyes. Secretary of State Kerry says the international community won’t accept this. They’re doing it! They don’t care what the international community thinks. They’re invading a country. So what would they do to get control of the internet if you threw something out there? These are real concerns that are being expressed. The other two panelists can touch on this as well.
CHEHADE: Thank you, Congressman. Let me be clear that at ICANN it is impossible for them today to do so. They’ve been trying for 15 years—
SCALISE: Exactly! Which is why it’s working.
CHEHADE: But it’s not because the US actually has the current stewardship role, it’s because of the multistakeholder model. It stops them. Where they will try to do what you’re suggesting is in the international intergovernmental organizations. They’ve been trying to do that there. We want to take away from them any argument that they still go to the UN and try to take over what ICANN does, by making sure that ICANN is free of one government control. To show them that ICANN believes in the multistakeholder model and this great country that created that model trusts it.
Chehade 1 – Scalise 0.
But did Scalise have a point, even accidentally? I’m going to cover that question in a separate post.
Rep Shimkus really wants you to support his bill
A recurring theme of the hearing was the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act, introduced by Rep. John Shimkus and others last week.
I called the bill “pointless” when it emerged, as all it does is delay any transition for a year until the US General Accounting Office has conducted a study of the ramifications.
But there’s also a feeling that the Act would be a distraction at best and may cast more uncertainty than is necessary over the transition process at a critical time for internet governance.
Both Strickling and Chehade prevaricated when Shimkus asked them outright, repeatedly, if they were opposed to the GAO review.
Strickling said he “neither or supports or opposes” such a review but said he was “in favor of full discussion of these issues”.
Chehade, seemingly reluctant to tie himself to a one-government review said he did not have a view, but that he committed to full transparency in the issue.
The fact that Chehade had said that there was “no rush” to conclude the transition process was later used by Shimkus as a gotcha, when he pointed out that the Act’s one-year delay would not have an impact.
On a second panel, Carolina Rossini of the Internet Governance and Human Rights Program of the New American Foundation, gave perhaps a fuller explanation of why there’s caution about the bill.
My concern is that if we wait one year, if we block the transition now and wait one year until we have a report, that is the risk. And that’s the risk that we have non-democratic governments to actually make their voices even louder and manipulate the narrative both in NetMundial and in the [ITU] plenipot in November.
Shimkus said he’d concluded that Chehade and Strickling has “in essence supported the bill”, which I don’t think was necessarily a fair interpretation of what they said.
The two-and-a-half hour hearing had a couple of other diversions — Rep Blackburn going off on a crazy tangent about net neutrality and Rep Latta wasting everyone’s time to score points on behalf of a constituent, a .med gTLD applicant — but otherwise it was generally sane stuff.
The committee seemed to be fairly well-briefed on the subject before them. Most of the Congressmen expressed their concerns about the transition in sensible terms and seemed to take the answers on board.
Special recognition should also be given to Chehade, who won the slightly condescending praise and admiration of some of the committee when he choked up on an abridged version of his immigrant origin story.
He has an uncanny ability to speak to his audience at every occasion and he put it to excellent use yesterday.
The unsuccessful applicant for the .thai top-level domain has become the third new gTLD hopeful to file an Independent Review Process complaint against ICANN.
Better Living Management had its bid for the restricted, Thailand-themed TLD rejected by ICANN in November due to a consensus objection from the Governmental Advisory Committee.
Now the company claims that the Thailand GAC representative who led the charge against its bid has never been formally authorized to speak for the Thai government at ICANN.
In the IRP request, BLM claims that Ahkuputra was appointed to the GAC by previous rep Thaweesak Koanantakool without the authorization of the Thai government.
It further claims that while Koanantakool was “invited” by the Thai government to be Thailand’s GAC rep, he was never formally “appointed” to the role. He was “erroneously recruited by the GAC”, BLM alleges.
Following that logic, Ahkuputra could not claim to be a legitimate GAC rep either, BLM claims.
From the IRP alone it looks like a bit of a tenuous, semantics-based argument. Is there any real difference between “invited” and “appointed” in the platitude-ridden world of diplomacy?
Nevertheless, BLM claims that by pushing the rest of the GAC to object to the .thai bid at the ICANN Beijing meeting a year ago, Ahkuputra acted against the wishes of the Thai government.
BLM says it has letters of support from five Thai government ministries — including the one Koanantakool works for — all signed during the new gTLD application and evaluation periods in 2012 and 2013.
Those letters were apparently attached to its IRP complaint but have not yet been published by ICANN.
BLM says it has sued Koanantakool and Ahkuputra, asking a Thai court to force them to drop their objections to the .thai bid.
This is not the first time that an unsuccessful new gTLD applicant has alleged that a GAC member was not properly appointed. DotConnectAfrica has level similar accusations against Kenya.
DCA claims (pdf) that Alice Munyua spoke against its .africa application in the GAC on behalf of Kenya but against the wishes of Kenya, which DCA says did not oppose the bid.
However, ICANN and GAC chair Heather Dryden rubbished these claims in ICANN’s reply (pdf) to DCA’s complaint, citing evidence that Kenya did in fact oppose the application.
ICANN has finally signed off on a set of exemptions that would allow dot-brand gTLDs to skip sunrise periods and, probably, work only with hand-picked registrars.
The new spec removes the obligation operate a sunrise period, which is unnecessary for a gTLD that will only have a single registrant. It also lets dot-brands opt out of treating all registrars equally.
Dot-brands would still have to integrate with the Trademark Clearinghouse and would still have to operate Trademark Claims periods — if a dot-brand registers a competitor’s name in its own gTLD during the first 90 days post-launch, the competitor will find out about it.
ICANN is also proposing to add another clause to Spec 13 related to registrar exclusivity, but has decided to delay the addition for 45 days while it gets advice from the GNSO on whether it’s consistent with policy.
That clause states that the dot-brand registry may choose to “designate no more than three ICANN accredited registrars at any point in time to serve as the exclusive registrar(s) for the TLD.”
This is to avoid the silly situation where a dot-brand is obliged to integrate with registrars from which it has no intention of buying any domain names.
Spec 13 also provides for a two-year cooling off period after a dot-brand ceases operations, during which ICANN will not delegate the same string to another registry unless there’s a public interest need to do so.
The specification contains lots of language designed to prevent a registry gaming the system to pass off a generic string as a brand.
There doesn’t seem to be a way to pass off a trademark alone, without a business to back it up, as a brand. Neither is there a way to pass off a descriptive generic term as a brand.
The rules seem to allow Apple to have .apple as a dot-brand, because Apple doesn’t sell apples, but would not allow a trousers company to have .trousers as a dot-brand.
ICANN may have come up with a way to appease both the GNSO and the GAC, which are at conflict over the best way to protect the names and/or acronyms of intergovernmental organizations.
At the public forum of the ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore last Thursday, director Bruce Tonkin told the community that the ICANN board will consider the GNSO’s recommendations piecemeal instead of altogether.
It will also convene a meeting of the GNSO, GAC, IGOs, international nongovernmental organizations and the At-Large Advisory Committee to help reach a consensus.
The issue, you may recall from a DI post last week, is whether the names and acronyms of IGOs and INGOs should be blocked in all new gTLDs.
The GNSO is happy for the names to be protected, but draws the line at protecting acronyms, many of which are dictionary words or have multiple uses. The GAC wants protection for both.
Both organizations have gone through their respective processes to come to full consensus policy advice.
This left ICANN in the tricky situation of having to reject advice from one or the other; its bylaws did not make a compromise easy.
By splitting the GNSO’s 20 or so recommendations up and considering them individually, the ICANN board may be able to reconcile some with the GAC advice.
It would also be able to reject bits of GAC advice, specific GNSO recommendations, or both. Because the advice conflicts directly in some cases, rejection of something seems probable.
But ICANN might not have to reject anything, if the GAC, GNSO and others can come to an agreement during the special talks ICANN has in mind, which could happen as soon as the London meeting in June.
Even if those talks lead to nothing, this proposed solution does seem to be good news for ICANN perception-wise; it won’t have to blanket-reject either GNSO or GAC policy advice.
This piecemeal or ‘scorecard’ approach to dealing with advice hasn’t been used with GNSO recommendations before, but it is how the board has dealt with complex GAC advice for the last few years.
It’s also been used with input from non-GNSO bodies such as the Whois Review Team and Accountability and Transparency Review Team.
Judging by a small number of comments made by GNSO members at the public forum on Thursday, the solution the board has proposed seems to be acceptable.
ICANN may have dodged a bullet here.
The slides used by Tonkin during the meeting can be found here.
Three Republican Congressmen have introduced a bill that would prevent the US government removing itself from oversight of the DNS root zone.
For a year.
The inappropriately titled Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act is designed to:
prohibit the National Telecommunications and Information Administration from relinquishing responsibility over the Internet domain name system until the Comptroller General of United States submits to Congress a report on the role of the NTIA with respect to such system.
Basically, the NTIA would be barred from walking away from root zone oversight until an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the transition was published, which would have to happen within a year.
The report would also have to include a definition of “multi-stakeholder”.
The three Republicans who introduced the bill — Representatives Todd Rokita, John Shimkus, and Marsha Blackburn — either have no idea what they’re talking about, or they’re being intellectually dishonest.
Blackburn said in a press release:
We can’t let the Internet turn into another Russian land grab. America shouldn’t surrender its leadership on the world stage to a “multistakeholder model” that’s controlled by foreign governments. It’s imperative that this administration reports to Congress before they can take any steps that would turn over control of the Internet.
In the month of March alone we’ve seen Russia block opposition websites, Turkey ban Twitter, China place new restrictions on online video, and a top Malaysian politician pledge to censor the Internet if he’s given the chance. This isn’t a theoretical debate. There are real authoritarian governments in the world today who have no tolerance for the free flow of information and ideas. What possible benefit could come from giving the Vladimir Putins of the world a new venue to push their anti-freedom agendas?
This is hysterical nonsense.
Not only has ICANN no intention of allowing the IANA function to be controlled by foreign governments, the NTIA has explicitly stated from the start that no governmental solution would be acceptable.
The current expectation, assuming community talks proceed as swiftly as hoped, is for stewardship of the IANA function to leave the NTIA’s hands when the current contract expires in October 2015.
Even if the DOTCOM (really?) Act were to be passed into US law this year, it shouldn’t have any serious impact on the timing of the root transition.
With that in mind, the three-page bill (pdf) looks quite a lot like an extended press release, rather than a serious attempt to keep the root in US hands.