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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.

IANA contract up for rebid this week?

Kevin Murphy, February 24, 2011, Domain Policy

As ICANN’s leadership heads off to Brussels to kick off two days of unprecedented talks about new top-level domains with international governments, one nation has an ace up its sleeve.

The US government could be just a day or two away from putting the IANA contract, from which ICANN derives much of its power over domain names, up for public discussion and rebidding.

It’s a matter of record that the IANA contract expires at the end of September, and that it will have to be renewed this year if ICANN wants to continue functioning as it is today.

But could the rebid process kick off as early as this week? It seems likely. The timing is right, especially if the US wants to make a statement.

It was February 21, 2006, five years ago this week, that the US Department of Commerce put out a “Request For Information” that led to the current five-year IANA deal with ICANN being signed.

No new RFI has been released yet. But Commerce could choose to pull rank, putting pressure on ICANN to recognize its authority, by issuing such a document this week.

There’s also the possibility that Commerce will issue not an RFI but instead a “Notice Of Inquiry”, a different type of public procurement procedure notice that would kick off not just a rebidding process but a whole lot of public argument about ICANN’s role in internet governance.

Over the years, it has not been unheard of for the US government to occasionally remind ICANN that it has a special relationship with it, particularly before important governance decisions are made.

Most recently, shortly before the ICANN meeting in Cartagena last December, Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at Commerce, warned that the new TLDs program wasn’t shaping up quite how the US expected.

Next week, Commerce’s Suzanne Sene is one of several Governmental Advisory Committee representatives expected to take a lead role in the ICANN-GAC negotiations.

One way or the other, the IANA contract is up for renewal this year, and the process may soon start that could see the function, hypothetically at least, change hands this September.

IANA, for Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, is responsible for the high-level management of IP address allocations, protocol numbers, and top-level domains.

If a gTLD or ccTLD wants to make a change to its DNS records it has to go to IANA, in much the same way as domain owners such as you and me have to go to our registrar.

IANA decides whether to redelegate a ccTLD to a new registry, for example. When .co liberalized recently, it only did so after IANA approved the transfer of the domain to .CO Internet from a Bogota university.

It’s also responsible for making the call on adding new TLDs to the root. Assigning the IANA function to an entity other than ICANN could, for example, add latency to the go-live date of new TLDs.

For the last decade, IANA has been pretty much an ICANN in-house department. It’s not at all clear to me what would happen if IANA was contracted to a third party, especially one that disagreed with ICANN’s decisions.

Both the European Commission and the Internet Architecture Board have recently indicated that they believe the IANA-ICANN relationship could be due a rethink, as Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project noted last summer.

Why ICANN dropped registrar ownership rules

Kevin Murphy, February 13, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN has quietly published a list of 10 reasons explaining why it decided to start allowing domain name registrars and registries to buy each other.

Last November, ICANN’s board of directors voted to drop so-called “vertical integration” rules that previously prevented registries owning more than a small percentage of registrars.

Now, under the forthcoming new top-level domains program, the likes of eNom and Go Daddy will be able to apply to become gTLD registries, and registries like VeriSign and Neustar will be able to apply to run their own registrar businesses.

The decision was unexpected, appeared to be a U-turn, and ICANN’s explanation was not articulated sufficiently to sate critics such as the US Department of Commerce.

So now ICANN has published a “Draft Rationale” (pdf), a 17-page document that outlines some of the thinking that went into the decision.

In a nutshell, ICANN dropped the VI rules to increase competition, to avoid antitrust lawsuits, and because the harms that could arise due to cross-ownership are best addressed by other means.

Here are the rationale’s 10 major bullet points in full:

  • None of the proposals submitted by the GNSO reflect a consensus opinion; as a result, the Board supported a model based on its own factual investigation, expert analysis, and concerns expressed by stakeholders and the community.
  • ICANN’s position and mission must be focused on creating more competition as opposed to having rules that restrict competition and innovation.
  • Rules permitting cross-ownership foster greater diversity in business models and enhance opportunities offered by new TLDs.
  • Rules prohibiting cross-ownership require more enforcement and can easily be circumvented.
  • Rules permitting cross-ownership enhance efficiencies and almost certainly will result in benefits to consumers in the form of lower prices and enhanced services.
  • Preventing cross-ownership would create more exposure to ICANN of lawsuits, including antitrust lawsuits, which are costly to defend even if ICANN believes (as it does) that it has no proper exposure in such litigation.
  • The new Code of Conduct, which is to be part of the base agreement for all new gTLDs, includes adequate protections designed to address behavior the Board wants to discourage, including abuses of data and market power. Data protection is best accomplished by data protection tools, including audits, contractual penalties such as contract termination, punitive damages, and costs of enforcement, as well as strong enforcement of rules. By contrast, market construction rules can be circumvented and cause other harms.
  • Case-by-case re-negotiation of existing contracts to reflect the new crossownership rules will permit ICANN to address the risk of abuse of market power contractually.
  • In the event ICANN has competition concerns, ICANN will have the ability to refer those concerns to relevant antitrust authorities.
  • ICANN can amend contracts to address harms that may arise as a direct or indirect result of the new cross-ownership rules.

The document still needs to be approved by the ICANN board of directors before it can be considered official.

It appeared without fanfare on the ICANN web site a little over a week ago.

Beckstrom: ICANN accountable to world, not just US

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2010, Domain Policy

ICANN chief Rod Beckstrom opened the organization’s 39th public meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, with a speech that touched on many of the organization’s recent controversies and appeared to take a strong stance against US government interference.

Everything from its political tangles with the International Telecommunications Union, to the recent calls for high-security top-level domains for financial services, to Beckstrom’s own controversial pet project, the proposed DNS-CERT, got a mention.

But probably Beckstrom’s strongest statement was the one which indirectly addressed recent moves by the US government to slam the brakes on ICANN’s new top-level domains program:

We are accountable to the world, not to any one country, and everything we do must reflect that.

Beckstrom acknowledged the controversies in the new TLDs policy, given last week’s strongly worded letter from the US Department of Commerce, which was highly critical of the program.

Commerce assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling has called on ICANN to delay the program until it has justified its decision under the Affirmation of Commitments.

But this morning, Beckstrom echoed sentiments expressed on the ICANN blog last week (my emphasis):

As is often the case with policy decisions in that multi-stakeholder model, not everyone is pleased, and this diversity of opinion contributes to the policy process. For example, last week we received a critical letter from the US Department of Commerce. As with all contributions, ICANN will give these comments careful consideration as part of the implementation of the GNSO policy. We welcome the transparent way that Commerce provided their comments through the public comment process.

How ICANN chooses to deal with the demands of its former master, the US government, is one of the Cartagena meeting’s Big Questions.

Another such question is how ICANN plans to deal with ongoing threats to its legitimacy from international bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union.

Addressing ITU secretary general Hamadoun Toure directly, Beckstrom said:

We have always sought to build our relationships based on mutual respect and integrity, taking into account the unique and distinct mandates entrusted to our organizations. The strengthening of communication between us is a personal priority for me.

Security

Security is one of ICANN’s watchwords, and Beckstrom is a security guy by trade. His speeches typically address the topic to a greater or lesser extent and Cartagena was no exception.

Security policies inherently create tensions. Take, for example, controversies about the strength and enforceability of of Whois policies, or Beckstrom’s own call for a DNS-CERT to oversee DNS risk.

This morning, he said:

The staff under my leadership is willing to go as far on security as the community is willing. And whatever security effort this community decides, we will do our utmost to implement and support, given sufficient resources. Because when it comes to security, how can we ever say we’ve done enough?

And now you need to tell us: where do you want us to go?

Of course, I am sure we can agree that when it comes to security, the question is not what do we want to do? Or what is popular or easy? It’s what do we owe the world? Because all of us care about the global public interest.

He took, in my view, a subtle swing at the Governmental Advisory Committee for putting security at the heart of its ongoing policy demands, while largely failing to cooperate with ICANN’s requests for information on security issues in their own jurisdictions. Beckstrom said:

We have asked GAC members to provide information about security activities in their countries. We appreciate the information some have shared but there have been few responses. As governments urge us to remain committed to security efforts, we in turn request that they help us by responding and working with the ICANN community on this vital mission.

I know there are some European ccTLD registries a bit miffed that ICANN has in recent months gone over their heads, direct to their governments, for this information, highlighting what a tricky political situation it is.

The speech also touched on internationalized domain names, with a shout-out to the recent launch of Russia’s Cyrillic ccTLD, and general global inclusion activities. I expect the text and audio to be published on the ICANN web site to be published shortly.