ICANN has terminated its last formal oversight link with the US government.
Late last week, ICANN chair Steve Crocker and Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration mutually agreed to retire the seven-year-old Affirmation of Commitments.
The AoC, negotiated during the tail end of Paul Twomey’s leadership of ICANN and signed by successor Rod Beckstrom, laid out ICANN’s responsibilities to the US government and, to a lesser extent, vice versa.
It included, for example, ICANN’s commitments to openness and transparency, its promise to remain headquartered in California, and its agreement to ongoing reviews of the impact of its actions.
Ongoing projects such as the Competition and Consumer Trust Review originate in the AoC.
The rationale for concluding the deal now is that most of significant provisions of the AoC have been grandfathered into ICANN’s revised bylaws and other foundational documents following the IANA transition, which concluded in October.
Reviews such as the CCT and the lock on its California HQ are now in the bylaws and elsewhere, ICANN said in a blog post.
It’s worth mentioning that the US gets a new administration led by Donald Trump in a little over a week, so it probably made sense to get the AoC out of the way now, lest the new president do something insane with it.
The letters from Crocker and Strickling terminating the deal can be read together here (pdf).
If there are any companies clamoring to get on the new gTLD bandwagon, they’ve got some waiting to do.
Based on a sketchy timetable published by ICANN this week, it seems unlikely that a second application round will open before 2017, and even that might be optimistic.
While ICANN said that “based on current estimates, a subsequent application round is not expected to launch until 2016 at the earliest”, that date seems unlikely even to senior ICANN staffers.
“The possibility exists,” ICANN vice president Cyrus Namazi told DI, “but the probability, from my perspective, is not that high when you think about all the pieces that have to come together.”
Here’s an ICANN graphic illustrating these pieces:
As you can see, the two biggest time-eaters on the road-map, pushing it into 2017, are a GNSO Policy Development Process (green) and the Affirmation of Commitments Review (yellow).
The timetable envisages the PDP, which will focus on what changes need to be made to the program, lasting two and a half years, starting in the first quarter 2015 and running until mid-2017.
That could be a realistic time-frame, but the GNSO has been known to work quicker.
An ICANN study in 2012 found that 263 days is the absolute minimum amount of time a PDP has to last from start to finish, but 620 days — one year and nine months — is the average.
So the GNSO could, conceivably, wrap up in late 2016 rather than mid-2017. It will depend on how cooperative everybody is feeling and how tricky it is to find consensus on the issues.
The AoC review, which will focus on “competition, consumer trust and consumer choice” is a bit harder to gauge.
The 2009 Affirmation of Commitments is ICANN’s deal with the US government that gives it some of its authority over the DNS. On the review, it states:
If and when new gTLDs (whether in ASCII or other language character sets) have been in operation for one year, ICANN will organize a review that will examine the extent to which the introduction or expansion of gTLDs has promoted competition, consumer trust and consumer choice, as well as effectiveness of (a) the application and evaluation process, and (b) safeguards put in place to mitigate issues involved in the introduction or expansion.
The AoC does not specify how long the review must last, just when it must begin, though it does say the ICANN board must react to it within six months.
That six-month window is a maximum, however, not a minimum. The board could easily take action on the review’s findings in a month or less.
ICANN’s timeline anticipates the review itself taking a year, starting in Q3 2015 and broken down like this:
Based on the timelines of previous Review Team processes, a rough estimate for this process is that the convening of the team occurs across 3-5 months, a draft report is issued within 6-9 months, and a final report is issued within 3-6 months from the draft.
Working from these estimates, it seems that the review could in fact take anywhere from 12 to 20 months. That would mean a final report would be delivered between September 2016 and July 2017.
If the review and board consideration of its report take the longest amount of time permitted or envisaged, the AoC process might not complete until early 2018, a little over three years from now.
Clearly there are a lot of variables to consider here.
Namazi is probably on safe ground by urging caution over the hypothetical launch of a second round in 2016.
Given than new gTLD evaluations were always seen as a “rolling” process, one of the things that the GNSO surely needs to look into is a mechanism to reduce the delay between rounds.
In what can only be described as an historic announcement, the United States government tonight said that it will walk away from its control of the DNS root zone.
ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said during a press conference tonight that the organization has begun a consultation to figure out “accountability mechanisms” that will replace the US role as ICANN’s master.
The news comes in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about US spying, but Chehade and ICANN chair Steve Crocker said that the changes would have been made sooner or later anyway.
So what just happened?
Earlier this evening, the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced its “intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community.”
That’s basically referring to the IANA contract, the US government procurement contract under which ICANN has the ability to make changes — essentially by recommendation — to the DNS root zone.
The current version of the contract is due to expire next year, and the hope is that when it does there won’t be any need for a renewal.
Between now and then, the ICANN community (that’s you) is tasked with coming up with something to replace it.
It’s going to be the hottest topic at the ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore, which kicks off a week from now, but it’s expected to be under discussion for much longer than that.
Chehade said during the press conference tonight that the idea is not to create a new oversight body to replace the NTIA. We seem to be talking about “mechanisms” rather than “organizations”.
He also said that the US government has made it plain that any attempt to replace the US with an intergovernmental body (ie, the International Telecommunications Union) will not be considered acceptable.
Whatever oversight mechanism replaces NTIA, it’s going to have to be “multistakeholder” — not just governments.
The root zone is currently controlled under a trilateral relationship between the NTIA, ICANN and Verisign.
Essentially, ICANN says “add this TLD” or “change the name servers for this TLD” and, after the NTIA has approved the change, Verisign implements it on its root zone servers. The other root zone operators take copies and the DNS remains a unique, reliable namespace.
The NTIA has said that it’s going to withdraw from this relationship.
One question that remains is whether Verisign will retain its important role in root zone management.
Chehade appeared slightly (only slightly) evasive on this question tonight, spending some time clarifying that Verisign’s root zone management contract is not the same as its .com contract.
I assume this prevarication was in order to not wipe billions off Verisign’s market cap on Monday, but I didn’t really get a good sense of whether Verisign’s position as a root zone manager was in jeopardy.
My guess is that it is not.
A second question is whether the US stepping away from the IANA function means that the Affirmation of Commitments between the US government and ICANN also has its days numbered.
Apparently it does.
Chehade and ICANN chair Steve Crocker pointed to the ICANN board’s decision a few weeks ago to create a new board committee tasked with exploring ways to rewrite the AoC.
And they said tonight that there’s no plan to retire the AoC. Rather, the idea is to increase the number of parties that are signatories to it.
The AoC, it seems, will be ICANN’s affirmation to the world, not just to the US government.
ICANN could wind up being based in Geneva as a result of the current post-Snowden internet governance discussions, according to a report in a Swiss newspaper.
Le Temps, citing several anonymous ICANN sources, reported today that an HQ move from Los Angeles to Geneva was a “very likely scenario”.
That’s as an alternative to allowing its functions to be taken over by the International Telecommunications Union, the paper reported.
It’s not the first time a move to Geneva has been touted.
Back in September, DI rubbished — and ICANN denied — claims that the organization had already put the wheels in motion for a move to Switzerland.
It still appears to be unlikely in the short term, and for the same reason: ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments with the US Department of Commerce requires it to remain a US non-profit corporation.
But the AoC is now open for discussion again.
Barely a month after the Geneva move was first raised as a possibility, Edward Snowden’s revelations about widespread US spying on internet users had led to the Montevideo Declaration, in which ICANN spoke of the need for further “internationalization” of ICANN.
Later last October, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade called America’s unique role in ICANN’s oversight “just not sustainable“.
Coming this April, governments, standards bodies, industry and others are set to meet in Sao Paolo, Brazil, for early-stage discussions that may eventually lead to the US cutting ICANN loose.
If ICANN does leave the US, Geneva does seem like the most plausible venue for its headquarters. It already has a small office there and has obtained international non-profit status for its local subsidiary.
The US Congress is to investigate ICANN’s new top-level domains program next week.
The House Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet will hold an “ICANN Generic Top-Level Domains (gTLD) Oversight Hearing” on Wednesday May 4 at 10am local time.
The hearing has been called at the direction of the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte.
The list of witnesses has yet to be published, but I’d be surprised if we don’t see a representative of the intellectual property lobby in attendance.
It will also be interesting to see who from ICANN is put forward to defend the new gTLD program.
ICANN is accustomed to being hauled over the coals on Capitol Hill every year or so, but I believe that this is the first time it has been subject to a US “oversight” hearing since it signed the Affirmation of Commitments in September 2009.
The AoC ostensibly separated ICANN from direct US control, in favor of a multi-stakeholder approach that gave voice to all national governments.