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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.

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.

Correction: what NTIA said about .com pricing

Kevin Murphy, September 5, 2016, Domain Registries

The US government has not confirmed that it expects to keep Verisign’s .com registry fee capped at the current level until at least 2024, despite what DI reported on Monday.

At this URL we published an article reporting that the US government had confirmed that it was going to keep .com prices frozen at $7.85 for the next eight years.

That was based on a misreading of a letter from the Department of Commerce to Senator Ted Cruz and others, which merely explained how the price cap could be maintained without expressing a commitment to do so.

The letter actually said very little, and nothing of news value, so I thought it best to simply delete the original piece and replace it with this correction.

I regret the error.

Thanks to those readers who got in touch to point out the mistake.

US claims option to delay IANA transition as Cruz launches free speech doomsday clock

Kevin Murphy, September 1, 2016, Domain Policy

The US government has told ICANN that it may extend the current IANA functions contract for a year, should something unexpected happen this month.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration wrote to ICANN (pdf) yesterday, to provide “preliminary notice” that it could extent the contract until September 30, 2017, if a “significant impediment” should occur before October 1, 2016.

It appears to be a formality. NTIA said:

the department intends to allow the IANA functions contract to expire as of October 1, 2016, barring any significant impediment. This notice preserves the Government’s rights under the contract during this interim period should there be a change in circumstance.

Under the contract, NTIA is allowed to extend the term for another year in the last 15 days of the current term, but it has to give 30 days notice to ICANN if it wants to do so.

NTIA assistant secretary Larry Strickling told ICANN (pdf) a couple weeks ago that it plans to allow the IANA contract to expire — thereby removing NTIA’s piddling influence in root zone management — October 1.

But the move is facing continued criticism from increasingly unhinged elements of the American political right, who have got it into their heads that the transition means Russia and China will be able to take over ICANN and crush free speech online.

The campaign has been spearheaded by Senator Ted Cruz and whoever pulls the strings of Wall Street Journal columnist L Gordon Crovitz, and has roped in a multitude of hard-right think-tanks.

The latest publicity push for the campaign saw Cruz yesterday launch a countdown clock on its Senate web page.

Countdown

Cruz’s site states:

If that proposal goes through, countries like Russia, China, and Iran could be able to censor speech on the Internet, including here in the U.S. by blocking access to sites they don’t like.

None of that is true, needless to say.

But the anti-transition sentiment is strong enough that it’s not impossible that there will be a “significant impediment” to the transition before October 1 — a legal injunction against the Federal government, perhaps — and the extension will enable ICANN to run IANA under the current regime for another year.

Cruz’s ICANN paranoia is now official Republican policy

Kevin Murphy, July 20, 2016, Domain Policy

US Republicans have endorsed hitherto fringe views on the IANA transition as official party policy.

Yesterday delegates at the Republican National Convention approved the party’s 2016 Platform of the party, which “declares the Party’s principles and policies”.

Internet policy takes up just half a page of the 66-page document, but it’s half a page straight out of the paranoid mind of former presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz.

It talks of the transition of the US government from its involvement in DNS root zone management (what the GOP calls “web names”) as an “abandonment” of internet freedoms to Russia, China and Iran, which are ready to “devour” them.

Here’s the relevant passage in (almost) full.

Protecting Internet Freedom

The survival of the internet as we know it is at risk. Its gravest peril originates in the White House, the current occupant of which has launched a campaign, both at home and internationally, to subjugate it to agents of government. The President… has unilaterally announced America’s abandonment of the international internet by surrendering U.S. control of the root zone of web names [sic] and addresses. He threw the internet to the wolves, and they — Russia, China, Iran, and others — are ready to devour it.

We salute the Congressional Republicans who have legislatively impeded his plans to turn over the Information Freedom Highway to regulators and tyrants. That fight must continue, for its outcome is in doubt. We will consistently support internet policies that allow people and private enterprise to thrive, without providing new and expanded government powers to tax and regulate so that the internet does not become the vehicle for a dramatic expansion of government power.

The internet’s independence is its power. It has unleashed innovation, enabled growth, and inspired freedom more rapidly and extensively than any other technological advance in human history. We will therefore resist any effort to shift control toward governance by international or other intergovernmental organizations. We will ensure that personal data receives full constitutional protection from government overreach. The only way to safeguard or improve these systems is through the private sector. The internet’s free market needs to be free and open to all ideas and competition without the government or service providers picking winners and losers.

Previously, such views had been expressed by just a handful of elected Republicans, notably Cruz, who has introduced a bill to block the IANA transition until Congress passes law specifically allowing it.

The irony in the latest GOP statement is that the transition is actually a transfer of power away from governments (specifically, the US government) into the private sector.

The current plan for a post-US ICANN, which was put together over two years by hundreds of participants mostly from the private sector, would see Governmental Advisory Committee advice carry less weight unless it receives full consensus.

In other words, if Iran, China and Russia want to destroy freedom of speech, they’ll have to persuade over 150 other governments to their cause.

Should that ever happen, a new multi-stakeholder (and in this example, government free) “Empowered Community” would have the power to put a stop to it.

The goal is to have the transition completed shortly after the current IANA contract between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce expires at the end of September.

That’s before the US presidential elections, of course, which take place in November.

NTIA gives nod to IANA transition

Kevin Murphy, June 9, 2016, Domain Policy

The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration has formally thrown its weight behind the community-led proposal that would remove the US government, itself in effect, from DNS root oversight.

Assistant secretary Larry Strickling held a press conference this afternoon to confirm the hardly surprising development, but dodged questions about a Republican move to scupper the plan in Congress.

The IANA transition plan, which was developed by the ICANN community over about two years, meets all the criteria NTIA had set out in its surprise 2014 announcement, Strickling confirmed.

Namely, NTIA said in a press release that the the plan would:

  • Support and enhance the multistakeholder model;
  • Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS;
  • Meet the needs and expectations of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and
  • Maintain the openness of the Internet.

Probably more importantly, NTIA agrees with everyone else that the plan does not replace NTIA’s role with more government meddling.

US Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Sean Duffy see things differently. They yesterday introduced the Protecting Internet Freedom Act, which would stop the transition going ahead.

Strickling said that NTIA has been talking to Congress members about the transition, but declined to “speculate” about the new bill’s likelihood of success.

“We’ve been up on the Hill doing briefings and will continue to do so with any member that wants to talk to us,” he said.

Currently, NTIA is forbidden by law from spending any money on the transition, but that prohibition expires (unless it is renewed) at the end of the current federal budget cycle.

The plan is to carry out the transition after that, Strickling said.

The current IANA contract expires September 30. It may be extended, depending on how quickly ICANN and Verisign proceed on their implementation tasks.

Cruz-Duffy bill would put brakes on IANA transition

Kevin Murphy, June 9, 2016, Domain Policy

America’s continuing unique oversight role in the DNS root management system, fuck yeah!

That’s basically the takeaway from a new bit of proposed US legislation, put forward by Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Sean Duffy in both houses of Congress yesterday.

The two Republican Congressmen have proposed the inappropriately named Protecting Internet Freedom Act, which is specifically designed to scupper the IANA transition at the eleventh hour.

PIFA would prevent the National Telecommunications and Information Administration from backing away from its role in the DNS root management triumvirate.

It’s supported, ironically, by a bunch of small-government right-wing think tanks and lobby groups.

If the bill is enacted, NTIA would need a further act of Congress in order to cancel or allow to expire its current IANA functions contract with ICANN

The bill (pdf) reads:

The Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information may not allow the responsibility of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with respect to the Internet domain name system functions, including responsibility with respect to the authoritative root zone file and the performance of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority functions, to terminate, lapse, expire, be cancelled, or otherwise cease to be in effect unless a Federal statute enacted after the date of enactment of this Act expressly grants the Assistant Secretary such authority.

The bill also seeks to ensure that the US government has “sole ownership” of the .gov and .mil TLDs “in perpetuity”.

These ownership rights are not and have never been in question; the inclusion of this language in the bill looks like a cheap attempt to stir up Congresspeople’s basest jingoistic tendencies.

A Cruz press release said the IANA transition “will allow over 160 foreign governments to have increased influence over the management and operation of the Internet.”

Duffy added:

President Obama wants to hand over the keys to the Internet to countries like China and Russia. This is reckless and absurd. The governments of these countries do not value free speech. In fact, they censor the Internet and routinely repress and punish political dissidents. They cannot be trusted with something as fundamental to free speech as a free and open Internet.

It’s unfiltered scaremongering.

No country — not China, Russia, the US nor any other government — gets increased powers under the IANA transition proposal, which was painstakingly crafted by, and is now supported by, pretty much all community stakeholders over two years.

In fact, governmental power is significantly curtailed under the proposal.

Post-transition, the Governmental Advisory Committee’s current voting practice, which essentially requires unanimity, would be enshrined in ICANN’s bylaws.

If the GAC came to ICANN with advice that did not have consensus — that is, some governments formally objected to it — ICANN would be able to reject it much more easily than it can today.

The one area where the GAC does get a new role is in the so-called “Empowered Community”, a new concept that will enter the ICANN bylaws post-transition.

The Empowered Community would be a non-profit legal entity formed by the ICANN community in the exceptional event that the ICANN board goes rogue and starts doing really egregious stuff that nobody wants — for example, introducing Draconian policy regulating freedom of speech.

The EC would have the power to kick out the ICANN board members of its choice, reject the ICANN budget, throw out proposed bylaws amendments and so on. As far as ICANN is concerned, the EC would be God.

Its members, or “Decisional Participants” would be the GNSO, the ccNSO, the ALAC, the ASO and the GAC.

The fact that the GAC has a seat at the EC table is the straw that Cruz, Duffy and co grasp at when they talk about governments getting increased power in a post-transition ICANN.

But the GAC’s voice is equal to those of the other four participants, and the GAC is not allowed a vote on matters stemming from ICANN’s implementation of consensus GAC advice.

In other words, the only way Cruz’s boogeymen governments would ever get to push through a censorship policy would be if that policy was also supported by all the other governments or by the majority of the diverse, multi-stakeholder ICANN community.

The arguments of Cruz and Duffy are red herrings, in other words.

Not only that, but the US record on attempted censorship of the DNS root is hardly exemplary.

While it’s generally been quietly hands-off for the majority of the time ICANN has had its hand on the rudder, there was a notable exception.

The Bush-era NTIA, following a letter-writing campaign by the religious right — Bible-thumping Cruz’s base — exerted pressure on ICANN to reject the proposed porn-only .xxx gTLD.

So who’s the real threat here, Red China or Ted Cruz, the man who tried to ban the sale of dildos in Texas?

The Protecting Internet Freedom Act is obviously still just a bill, but Republicans still control both houses of Congress so it’s not impossible that the tens of thousands of hours the ICANN community has put into the IANA transition could be sacrificed on the altar of embarrassing the President, who is probably Kenyan anyway.

ICANN refuses to play Ted Cruz’s game

Kevin Murphy, April 8, 2016, Domain Policy

ICANN has blown off US senator Ted Cruz by declining to answer a bunch of framed questions about its engagement with China.

In a letter (pdf) to Cruz and fellow senators Michael Lee and James Lankford, ICANN chair Steve Crocker testily explains that ICANN has offices and relationships all over the world, given the nature of its mandate.

There’s a suggestion that ICANN’s board resents the “insinuation” that talking to China means it’s ready to be captured by it or implement its censorship policies.

Crocker wrote:

ICANN does not endorse the views of any particular stakeholder, regardless of the organization’s engagement efforts, the composition of its advisory committees, and where it holds its meetings. In this sense, ICANN’s engagement with China as a global Internet stakeholder does not suggest any level of support for the nation’s government or its policies. Similarly, no endorsement of such matters could reasonably be inferred from the operations of the United States’ largest technology firms operating in China, including Cisco, Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Uber. These firms, like ICANN, do not endorse the policies, laws, and regulations of China simply by operating there. As long as the U.S. Government has a policy of engagement with China, U.S. firms operate there without the insinuation that doing so makes them complicit in China’s censorship.

The letter was written in response to a bullet-pointed list of a few dozen question Cruz has posed in letters over the last couple of months.

The Cruz missives were a fairly obvious fishing expedition, with the senators apparently looking for sticks to beat ICANN with in the form of evidence that the organization is too friendly with the dreaded Chinese.

Some on the right wing of American politics seem to see the transition of ICANN/IANA partially away from US government oversight as a wedge issue they can use to show Obama is happily selling the ‘Murican constitution to China.

But Crocker ducks most of Cruz’s questions, preferring instead to present an alternative narrative.

He does not, for example, give answers to simple factual questions related to former CEO Fadi Chehade’s joining as co-chair of a committee of the China-led World Internet Conference.

Instead, he refers Cruz to a previous letter from Chehade, and notes that Chehade is no longer with ICANN.

He does not answer anything related to XYZ.com’s proposals related to selling .xyz domain names in China, which Cruz reckons could be used to censor the people of Hong Kong.

Neither does he confirm that ICANN pays government-affiliated CNNIC for collocated office space in Beijing, which wasn’t disclosed until it came out at a press conference last month.

I imagine Cruz, in receipt of Crocker’s letter, is feeling much the same as I do when an interviewee waffles in response to simple questions.

Pissed off.

I doubt this exchange is over.

Cruz keeps up pressure on ICANN brass

Kevin Murphy, April 6, 2016, Domain Policy

US presidential wannabe Sen. Ted Cruz has sent ICANN’s chair another nasty letter, demanding to know why he hasn’t yet responded to a laundry list of questions about former CEO Fadi Chehade’s relationship with the Chinese government.

The letter, also signed by fellow Republican senators Mike Lee and James Lankford, expresses “dismay” over the lack of response from Steve Crocker.

Cruz et al have been posing awkward questions to ICANN’s top brass since it emerged in December that Chehade had taken an unpaid position on an internet governance advisory committee run by China.

The senators say they’re worried that the US relinquishing its oversight of the IANA functions will give governments with poor freedom of expression records too much control over the internet.

A more likely explanation is that the IANA transition is an Obama initiative, and if Obama single-handedly saved a bunch of kids from a burning orphanage Cruz & Co would blame him for contributing to over-population.

That’s more or less the sentiment Chehade expressed at ICANN 55 last month, when he said:

And you know that this [Cruz] letter is not driven by anyone really worried about the transition. This is someone really worried about politics. So let’s not bring politics into the transition… Let’s resist bringing the politics of our lovely capital into this process… I think everyone knows this is political, even those in his own party… We will answer all these questions… And we will respond to the questions fully, to the Senators’ full satisfaction.

The new letter calls Chehade out for this statement, saying he “disparaged” what they call an “oversight request”.

An actual Congressional oversight hearing, focusing on the transition, a couple of weeks ago had absolutely no fireworks whatsoever.

It seems that the Republican-led committee actually responsible for internet matters, which does not include Cruz as a member, isn’t particularly upset about the IANA transition.

Nevertheless, the new Cruz letter re-poses a whole list of questions about Chehade’s involvement in China and Crocker and the ICANN board’s response to it.

The questions were originally asked March 3. ICANN had evidently said it would respond by March 18 but has not.

Cruz’s hand in the Republican primaries against front-runner Donald Trump has been strengthened in recent days, increasing the possibility that he could become US president next January.

ICANN China “conflict” denied as Cruz looks for dirt

Kevin Murphy, March 7, 2016, Domain Policy

ICANN chair Steve Crocker has denied that outgoing CEO Fadi Chehade has a conflict of interest with the Chinese government, after US Senator Ted Cruz pressed him for more details on Chehade’s extra-curricular activities in the country.

“There’s no money involved, so there’s no conflict of interest involved at all,” Crocker said at a press conference, in response to a DI question, at ICANN 55 in Marrakech today.

I put the question because presidential hopeful Cruz, along with fellow senators James Lankford and Michael Lee, said in a letter last Thursday (pdf) that Chehade has a “confirmed personal conflict of interest” when it comes to the Chinese government.

That appears to be based on his admission, in a letter to Cruz et al last month, that his travel expenses to the World Internet Conference (aka, the Wuzhen Summit), where he’s agreed to be co-chair of an advisory committee after he leaves ICANN, would probably be picked up by the Chinese government.

According to Cruz, Chehade is in the pocket of the Chinese government because he has accepted or will accept flight-plus-hotel expenses to a Chinese conference, which could distract him from his $900,000-a-year ICANN salary.

Cruz’s most recent letter seeks further information about Chehade’s involvement with Wuzhen and the ICANN board’s response when they found out about it.

It appears to be basically an effort to get as much evidence as possible to support the ludicrous Republican claim that the IANA transition process initiated by the Obama administration risks handing control over internet censorship to the Chinese.

This, while some governments are complaining that the community-drafted IANA transition proposals actually weaken the hand of governments.

“There’s much less there than people are making an issue of, so there’s just no problem from our point of view,” Crocker said at the press conference.

“There are several degrees of separation between matters at ICANN and involvement with the Chinese government,” Crocker said. “[Wuzhen is] not controlled by the Chinese government and it’s intended to facilitate bringing in people from all over the world, it’s a matter of inclusion rather than exclusion.”

While Cruz asks quite a lot in his latest letter, one of the questions that leaped out at me claimed that ICANN does not publish the address of its Beijing office on its web site.

All the other local “Engagement Centers” have physical addresses listed, but not the Chinese one, Cruz said.

It turns out he’s correct.

I asked at the press conference why the address was not published on the ICANN web site and whether Cruz was correct to infer that ICANN is based in the same office as CNNIC, the government-controlled .cn ccTLD registry.

Chehade replied: “As I’m sure you’ve read in our press releases when we opened that office, that office was opened with a very clear press release by us and one by CNNIC indicating that our office would be collocated with CNNIC. So there’s nothing new here.”

He thanked Cruz for pointing out the omission on the ICANN web site and said it would be corrected.

He said that it’s ICANN’s habit to collocate engagement centers with local players, and that Beijing was nothing different. ICANN pays CNNIC for the collocation, he said.

Looking at the ICANN press release (pdf) announcing the Beijing office opening, back in 2013, it seems Chehade was incorrect, however. The press release makes no mention of CNNIC hosting the new ICANN engagement center. It does not mention CNNIC at all.

CNNIC did at the time state in its own press release, in a roundabout way, that ICANN Beijing would be sharing its office.

I also asked whether the outcome of the US presidential election would have a direct bearing on whether ICANN is able to execute the IANA transition. Would the transition happen if Cruz gets elected president of the USA in November?

Crocker gamely waffled for a couple of minutes but didn’t confirm what many take as a given: that Obama initiatives such as the IANA transition are likely to be at risk of a scuppering should a Republican, particularly Cruz, enters the White House.

“As an American I have to say this is one of the most interesting and unpredictable presidential election processes we’ve ever seen,” Crocker said, “but as chairman of the board of ICANN I hope it has no relationship at all to a process that was started in principle when ICANN was initiated in 1998.”

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