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Is the Trump administration really trying to reverse the IANA transition?

Kevin Murphy, January 29, 2018, Domain Policy

Questions have been raised about the US government’s commitment to an independent ICANN, following the release of letters sent by two top Trump appointees.

In the letters, new NTIA head David Redl and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross expressed an interest in looking at ways to “unwind” the IANA transition, which in 2016 severed the formal ties between ICANN and the US in DNS root zone management.

Responding to questions from senators during his lengthy confirmation process, now National Telecommunications and Information Administration assistant secretary Redl wrote:

I am not aware of any specific proposals to reverse the IANA transition, but I am interested in exploring ways to achieve this goal. To that end, if I am confirmed I will recommend to Secretary Ross that we begin the process by convening a panel of experts to investigate options for unwinding the transition.

The letters were first obtained by Politico under the Freedom of Information Act. We’re publishing them here (pdf).

They were sent last August, when Redl’s confirmation to the NTIA role was being held up by Senator Ted Cruz, who vehemently opposed the transition because he said he thought it would give more power over online speech to the likes of Russia and China.

He was confirmed in November.

The question is whether Redl was serious about unwinding the transition, or whether he was just bullshitting Cruz in order to remove a roadblock to his confirmation.

Technically, he only promised to “recommend” convening a panel of experts to his boss, Ross.

NTIA declined to comment last week when DI asked whether the department still supports the IANA transition, whether any efforts are underway to unwind it, and whether the panel of experts has already been convened.

Redl’s statements on ICANN since his confirmation have been more or less consistent with his Obama-era predecessor, Larry Strickling, in terms of expressing support for multi-stakeholder models, but with perhaps some causes for concern.

During his first public speech, delivered at the CES show in Las Vegas earlier this month, Redl expressed support for multi-stakeholder internet governance amid pushes for more multi-lateral control within venues such as the International Telecommunications Union.

However, he added:

I’ll also focus on being a strong advocate for U.S. interests within ICANN. We need to ensure transparency and accountability in ICANN’s work. And in light of the implementation of the European General Data Privacy Regulation, or GDPR, we need to preserve lawful access to WHOIS data, which is a vital tool for the public.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be seeking out the views of stakeholders to understand how else NTIA can best serve American interests in these global Internet fora.

Could this be an allusion to the “panel of experts”? It’s unclear at this stage.

One of Redl’s first moves as NTIA chief was to slam ICANN for its lack of accountability concerning the shutdown of a review working group, but that was hardly a controversial point of view.

And in a letter to Senator Brian Schatz, the Democrat ranking member of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, sent earlier this month, Redl expressed support for the multi-stakeholder model and wrote:

NTIA will be a strong advocate for US interests with the Governmental Advisory Committee of the Internet Cooperation [sic] for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in the existing post-transition IANA phase. NTIA will also monitor the [IANA operator] Public Technical Identifiers (PTI) and take action as necessary to ensure the security and stability of the DNS root.

That certainly suggests NTIA is happy to work in the new paradigm, while the promise to “take action as necessary” against PTI may raise eyebrows.

While a lot of this may seem ambiguous, my hunch is that there’s not really much appetite to reverse the IANA transition. Apart from appeasing Cruz’s demons, what could possibly be gained?

Ross, quizzed by Cruz at his own confirmation hearing a year ago, seemed reluctant to commit to such a move.

New Trump appointee slams ICANN after security group shutdown

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2017, Domain Policy

Not even a month into the job, the US official with most direct responsibility over domain name policy has criticized ICANN for shutting down a security working group.

David Redl, the new assistant secretary at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, wrote to ICANN (pdf) last week to complain about its board unilaterally shutting down, temporarily, its supposedly independent Security, Stability and Resiliency of the DNS Review team.

He wrote that the action “calls into question” ICANN’s commitment to transparency and accountability, writing:

Everything documented to date about these reviews stresses the importance of openness, transparency and community consultation. Unfortunately, it seems that with the October 28th action, the ICANN Board violated these principles by substituting its judgement for that of the community.

SSR-2, as it is known, is one of the reviews previously mandated by ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments with the US government (via the NTIA) but which can now be found instead embedded in its bylaws.

The ICANN board of directors temporarily suspended it in October, something like a soft reboot, after growing concerned that it was stepping outside of its mandate and that its members lacked expertise.

The move attracted broad criticism and it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that Redl’s position is a controversial one — you’d be hard pressed to find any section of the community that wholeheartedly supports the board’s action.

Indeed, the US representative to the Governmental Advisory Committee voiced similar concerns at the ICANN meeting in Abu Dhabi in late October, prior to Redl’s confirmation to the NTIA job.

Redl took the post November 21, having been nominated by Donald Trump back in May, replacing Obama appointee Larry Strickling, who left the agency in January.

He’s the first NTIA chief since ICANN’s inception not to enjoy the special position of power over ICANN granted by the old IANA contract, which was scrapped in September 2016.

US “threatens” Costa Rica over Pirate Bay domains

Kevin Murphy, June 16, 2017, Domain Policy

The US government has been threatening to “close down” Costa Rica’s .cr registry over its refusal to take down a Pirate Bay domain name, according to the registry.

Representatives of the US embassy in Costa Rica have been badgering NIC.cr to take down thepiratebay.cr since 2015, according to a letter from Pedro Le├│n Azofeifa, president of Academia Nacional de Ciencias, which runs the registry.

The letter claims:

These interactions with the United States Embassy have escalated with time and include great pressure since 2016 that is exemplified by several phone calls, emails and meetings urging our ccTLD to take down the domain, even though this would go against our domain name policies

According to the letter, a US official “has mentioned threats to close our registry, with repeated harassment regarding our practices and operation policies and even personal negative comments directed to our Executive Director”.

The letter was sent to the chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee 10 days ago, CC’d to senior ICANN, Costa Rican and US governmental figures, and has been circulated this week in the Latin American domain name community.

The form of the alleged threats to close the registry is not clear, but it should be noted that prior to October 1 last year the US Department of Commerce, via its now-relinquished oversight of ICANN, played a key role in the administration of the DNS root zone.

The Pirate Bay is of course a popular directory of BitTorrent links largely used to disseminate pirated copies of movies and music, much of it American-made.

The site has been TLD-hopping for years, as registries around the world shut down its domains for violations of their own local rules. It has been live on thepiratebay.cr since December 2014, when its Swedish operation was shut down by authorities.

The NIC.cr letter says that its own policies follow international “best practices” and allow it to take down domains when presented with a Costa Rican court order, but that “the pressure and harassment [from the US] to take down the domain name without its proper process and local court order persists”.

The US Department of Commerce even pressured its Costa Rican counterpart to investigate NIC.cr, but that probe concluded that the registry was acting within its procedures, according to the letter.

It’s not the first attempt to get rid of the Pirate Bay this year.

Public Interest Registry in February announced a “UDRP for copyright” proposal that would allow copyright holders to have piracy disputes heard by independent arbitrators. It looked like a way to get unloved thepiratebay.org domain taken down without PIR having to take unilateral action.

That proposal was shelved after an outcry from the industry and civil rights watchdogs.

In April, one of the Pirate Bay’s founders launched a piracy-friendly domain registration service.

Just this week, the European Court of Justice ruled, after seven years of legal fights, that the Pirate Bay infringes copyright, raising the possibility of the site being blocked in more European countries.

The NIC.cr letter is dated June 6. It has not yet been published by ICANN or the GAC.

Trump nominee open to retaking ICANN oversight role

Kevin Murphy, January 19, 2017, Domain Policy

The incoming head of the US Department of Commerce has indicated that it is unlikely he’ll try to reestablish the US government’s unique oversight of ICANN, at least in the short term.

But at his confirmation hearing in Congress yesterday, Trump nominee for secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross said he’d be open to ideas about how the US could increase its power over ICANN.

He was responding to a question from Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who made halting the IANA transition one of his key concerns last year.

Cruz, framing the question in such a way as to suggest ICANN is now in the hands of an intergovernmental consortium (which it is not) asked Ross whether he was committed to preventing censorious regimes using ICANN to hinder Americans’ freedom of speech.

Ross replied:

As such a big market and really as the inventors of the Internet, I’m a little surprised that we seem to be essentially voiceless in the governance of that activity. That strikes me as an intellectually incorrect solution. But I’m not aware of what it is that we actually can do right now to deal with that. If it exists, if some realistic alternative comes up, I’d be very interested.

His response also mischaracterizes the power balance post-transition.

The US is not “essentially voiceless”. Rather, it has the same voice as every other government as a member of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

Its role is arguably still a lot more powerful than other nations, given that ICANN is now bylaws-bound to remain headquartered in California and under US jurisdiction.

As head of Commerce, Ross will have authority over the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency most directly responsible for dealing with ICANN and domain name issues in general.

NTIA itself will to the best of my knowledge still be headed by assistant secretary Larry Strickling, who handled the IANA transition from the US government side. (UPDATE: this may not be correct)

Ross, 79, is a billionaire investor who made most of his estimated $2.5 billion fortune restructuring bankrupt companies in the coal and steel industries.

ICANN retires Affirmation of Commitments with US gov

Kevin Murphy, January 9, 2017, Domain Policy

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).