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US resurrects the controversial new TLDs veto

Kevin Murphy, June 11, 2011, Domain Policy

The US government intends to give itself greater oversight powers over ICANN’s new top-level domains program, according to a partial draft of the next IANA contract.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has proposed what amounts to a Governmental Advisory Committee veto over controversial new TLDs.

The agency last night published a Further Notice Of Inquiry (pdf), which includes a proposed Statement Of Work that would form part of ICANN’s next IANA contract.

The IANA contract, which is up for renewal September 30, gives ICANN many of its key powers over the domain name system’s root database.

The new documents seem to fulfill NTIA assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling’s promise to use the IANA contract “as a vehicle for ensuring more accountability and transparency” at ICANN.

If the new draft provisions are finalized, ICANN would be contractually obliged to hold new gTLD applicants to a higher standard than currently envisaged by the Applicant Guidebook.

The FNOI notes that the US believes (my emphasis):

there is a need to address how all stakeholders, including governments collectively, can operate within the paradigm of a multi-stakeholder environment and be satisfied that their interests are being adequately addressed

The Statement Of Work, under the heading “Responsibility and Respect for Stakeholders” includes new text that addresses this perceived need:

For delegation requests for new generic TLDS (gTLDs), the Contractor [ICANN] shall include documentation to demonstrate how the proposed string has received consensus support from relevant stakeholders and is supported by the global public interest.

The current Applicant Guidebook does not require “consensus support from relevant stakeholders” before a new gTLD is approved.

It gives applicants the opportunity to show support from self-defined communities, and it gives communities the right to object to any application, but it does not require consensus.

Earlier this year, the GAC asked ICANN to beef up the Guidebook to make community support or non-objection a proactive requirement for applicants, but ICANN declined to make the change.

The .xxx Factor

The NTIA’s proposed “respect rule” alludes to the approval of .xxx, which the US and other governments believe was both not in the global public interest and unsupported by the porn industry.

Had the rule been applicable in March, ICANN could very well have found itself in breach of the IANA contract, and the NTIA could have been within its rights to block the TLD.

One way to look at this is as a US government safeguard against ICANN’s board of directors overruling GAC objections to new TLDs in future.

The Guidebook currently gives the GAC the right to object to any application for any reason, such as if it believed a proposed string was not supported by a community it purported to represent.

But the Guidebook, reflecting ICANN’s bylaws, also gives ICANN the ability to disagree with GAC advice (including its new TLD objections) and essentially overrule it.

Under the NTIA’s proposed IANA contract language, if ICANN were to overrule a GAC objection to a controversial application, the NTIA would be able to claim that the gTLD was approved without stakeholder consensus, in violation of the IANA contract.

The new gTLD program would have, in essence, a backdoor GAC veto.

While these changes are being made unilaterally by the US, they are certain to be supported by the European Commission and probably other members of the GAC.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes urged Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to block or delay .xxx back in April, and subsequently met with Strickling to discuss their mutual opposition to the TLD.

Kroes and Strickling seem to agree agree that ICANN should not have signed the .xxx registry contract over the (weak, non-consensus) objection of the GAC.

The FNOI will shortly open for 45 days of public comment, so we’re not likely to know precisely how this is going to play out in the new IANA contract until August.

ICANN is now in the tricky position of trying to figure out how to incorporate this mess into the Guidebook, which it has indicated it plans to approve just over a week from now.

Singapore is going to be very interesting indeed.

Europe asked the US to delay .xxx

Kevin Murphy, May 5, 2011, Domain Policy

European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes asked the US Department of Commerce to delay the introduction of the .xxx top-level domain after ICANN approved it, I can reveal.

In an April 6 letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, a copy of which I have obtained, Kroes expressed dismay with ICANN’s decision, and wrote (my emphasis):

I would therefore consider it necessary for the [ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee] to reflect, at a senior level, on the broader implications of the Board’s decision on .XXX, and to do so before the TLD is introduced into the global Internet. I assume that the United States government would appreciate the opportunity to hear the views of other countries on this important issue, and I very much hope therefore that I can count on your support for such an initiative.

The letter was sent after ICANN had approved .xxx, but nine days before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration instructed VeriSign to add it to the DNS root.

It seems to be an implicit request for the NTIA to delay .xxx’s go-live date to give the Governmental Advisory Committee of ICANN time to regroup and consider how best to continue to oppose the domain.

As I reported this morning, assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling replied to Kroes later in April, agreeing with her in principle but saying that to intervene could do more harm than good.

Kroes objected on the grounds that GAC had “no active support” for .xxx, that national-level blocking of the TLD could threaten internet stability, and that parents will be given a “false sense of security” if they choose to filter .xxx domain names.

She also didn’t buy ICANN’s rationale for its decision, saying it contained “mostly procedural arguments that do not adequately reflect the significant political and cultural sensitivities” created by .xxx.

She additionally noted that:

Most importantly, perhaps, are the wider consequences that we have all have to deal with as a result of this decision. We are both aware of the broader geo-political Internet governance debate that continues regarding the legitimacy of the ICANN model. I am concerned therefore that ICANN’s decision to reject substantive GAC advice – of which there is also an apparent risk in relation to the new generic TLD process – may be detrimental to the multi-stakeholder, private sector-led model which many of us in the international community have been stoutly defending for years.

This seems to be a reference to the longstanding debate over whether the International Telecommunications Union, or another intergovernmental body, may be better suited to overseeing domain name system policy.

In his reply to Kroes, Strickling offered to meet her by teleconference or in person in Brussels, in order to discuss how to proceed.

The fallout from .xxx’s approval may not be over by a long shot.

UPDATE: Read the Kroes letter: Page One, Page Two.

Did Europe ask America to block .xxx?

Kevin Murphy, May 5, 2011, Domain Policy

The European Commission may have asked the US Department of Commerce to block or delay the .xxx top-level domain, it has emerged.

I’ve heard rumors for a few weeks that Neelie Kroes, vice president of the Commission responsible for the digital economy, wrote to Commerce in April, asking it to delay the go-live date for .xxx.

Today, a reply from Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary at Commerce, has emerged, published on the blog of Polish technology consultant Andrzej Bartosiewicz.

It appears to confirm the rumors. Strickling wrote:

While the Obama Administration does not support ICANN’s decision, we respect the multi-stakeholder Internet governance process and do not think it is in the long-term best interest of the United States or the global Internet community for us unilaterally to reverse the decision.

It’s certainly possible to infer from this that Kroes had asked the US to exercise its unique powers over the domain name system’s root database to block or delay .xxx.

The Kroes letter was evidently sent April 6, about 10 days before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of Commerce, instructed VeriSign to add .xxx to the root.

In his April 20 response, Strickling shared Kroes’ “disappointment” with ICANN’s decision, saying the organization “ignored the clear advice of governments worldwide, including the United States”.

He said the decision “goes against the global public interest and will spur more efforts to block the Internet” and agreed that ICANN “needs to make to engage governments more effectively”.

To that end, Strickly offered to fly to Brussels to meet with Kroes to conduct a “senior level exchange” on how to better work with ICANN.

While it’s probably too late for any of this to affect .xxx, operated by ICM Registry, it is a clear sign that governments are taking a renewed interest in ICANN’s work.

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee issued weak advice on .xxx, noting merely that no governments outright supported it, and that “several” were opposed. The was no consensus.

Because the GAC did not explicitly say “do not approve .xxx”, ICANN was able to rationalize its decision by saying it was not explicitly overruling governmental advice.

At least three countries — Saudi Arabia, India and Kenya — have already indicated that they may block .xxx domains within their borders.

UPDATE: Kroes did in fact ask Commerce to delay .xxx.

Beckstrom calls for ICANN’s independence

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN president Rod Beckstrom has called for the organization to be allowed to further loosen its ties to the US government.

The two-hour opening ceremony of its 40th public meeting, here in San Francisco this morning, had a heavy focus on ICANN’s relationship with governments, and looked as much to its roots in the Clinton administration as it addressed more immediate concerns internationally.

Beckstrom and others tackled the renewal of the soon-to-expire IANA contract, with which the US grants ICANN many of its powers over the domain name system, head-on.

Beckstrom said some have expressed “a belief that the US government should live up to its 1998 White Paper commitment to transfer management of the IANA functions to the private sector-led organization entrusted to manage the DNS, which is ICANN. ”

That would mean severing one of the most frequently criticized links between ICANN and the USA.

In a press conference later, he confirmed that this is in fact his belief, saying that internet governance is “evolving behind the curve” as internet usage grows internationally.

The US handing the keys to the internet over to ICANN doesn’t appear to be immediately likely, however. But there may be some ways to continue to phase out the US special relationship on a shorter term basis.

Beckstrom took the stage shortly after Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the US Department of Commerce, made some frank criticisms.

While stressing the Obama administration’s commitment to what he called “multistakeholderism” in internet governance, he had a few pointed remarks to make about ICANN’s decision-making process.

He accused the ICANN board of directors of “picking winners and losers” by making decisions in situations where the community has been unable to reach a consensus policy.

He singled out two recent policies where he believes ICANN has failed to sufficiently rationalize its decisions: registry-registrar integration and economic studies into new TLDs.

The criticisms are not new, and many of them may well go away if and when ICANN implements the recommendations of its Accountability and Transparency Review Team.

My initial sense is that the fact Strickling was able to speak so frankly and so publicly about the administration’s feelings is an encouraging sign of ICANN’s maturity.

And Beckstrom’s response was equally ballsy, urging ICANN’s supporters to lobby the NTIA for a loosening of US-ICANN ties.

The NTIA’s Notice Of Inquiry regarding IANA, which floats the idea of breaking up the IANA functions and possibly assigning them to three different entities, was released a few weeks ago.

During his address this morning, former ICANN chair Vint Cerf put forth the view that this kind of government procurement contract may be an inappropriate mechanism for overseeing IANA functions:

I believe that that concept of procuring service from ICANN really ought to change to become a cooperative agreement because I believe that format expresses more correctly the relationship between ICANN and the Department of Commerce.

Beckstrom evidently agrees with Cerf. At the press conference, he pointed out that the disadvantage of a procurement contract is that it’s short term, undermining confidence in ICANN.

It also requires ICANN to run the IANA to the benefit of the American people, rather than the international community, he said. This obviously can reinforce the perception in some parts of the world that ICANN has an untenable American bias.

“A cooperative agreement seems more befitting of the relationship the NTIA and ICANN has developed,” he said, noting that this is currently the structure of NTIA’s relationship with VeriSign.

The Number Resource Organization may give a further clue to ICANN’s game plan in this email (pdf) published today, in which the NRO says:

We strongly believe that no government should have a special role in managing, regulating or supervising the IANA functions.

The NRO suggests that ICANN, through these coming negotiations, should advocate for a staged reduction of the level of DoC’s oversight to IANA. This process could possibly involve a transitionfrom a contract to a cooperation agreement, and ultimately arrival at a non-binding arrangement, such as an affirmation of commitments

Beckstrom now wants your help to make this happen. During his keynote, he urged the ICANN community to make its disparate views known to the NTIA, “openly and in writing”.

“This is the chance to add your voice to those determining the fate of the IANA function,” he said. “If your voice is to be heard, you must speak up.”

“When all voices are heard, no single voice can dominate an organization – not even governments. Not even the government that facilitated its creation,” Beckstrom said.

Details about how to respond to the NOI can be found in this PDF.

US may break up ICANN powers

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2011, Domain Policy

The US government is considering taking away some of ICANN’s powers.

The Department of Commerce today kicked off the process of reviewing the so-called IANA contract, from which ICANN currently derives its control over the domain name system root zone.

As I predicted yesterday, Commerce has published a Notice of Inquiry in the Federal Register. It wants input from the public before it officially opens the contract for rebidding.

ICANN has operated the IANA functions, often regarded as intrinsic to and inseparable from its mission, for the last decade. But the contract expires September 30 this year.

Significantly, Commerce now wants to know whether the three IANA functions – IP address allocation, protocol number assignments, and DNS root zone management – should be split up.

The NOI says:

The IANA functions have been viewed historically as a set of interdependent technical functions and accordingly performed together by a single entity. In light of technology changes and market developments, should the IANA functions continue to be treated as interdependent? For example, does the coordination of the assignment of technical protocol parameters need to be done by the same entity that administers certain responsibilities associated with root zone management?

I’m speculating here, but assuming ICANN is a shoo-in for the domain names part of the IANA deal, this suggests that Commerce is thinking about breaking out the IP address and protocol pieces and possibly assigning them to a third party.

The NOI also asks for comments about ways to improve the security, stability and reportable metrics of the IANA functions, and whether relationships with other entities such as regional internet registries and the IETF should be baked into the contract.

The timing of the announcement is, as I noted yesterday, interesting. It could be a coincidence, coming almost exactly five years after the IANA contract last came up for review.

But ICANN’s board of directors and its Governmental Advisory Committee will meet in Brussels on Monday to figure out where they agree and disagree on the new top-level domains program.

While it’s an ICANN-GAC meeting, the US has taken a prominent lead in drafting the GAC’s position papers, tempered somewhat, I suspect, by other governments, and will take a key role in next week’s talks.

Hat tip: @RodBeckstrom.