Defending the Multistakeholder Model of Internet Policymaking and Governance

On March 14, 2014, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community. As the first step, NTIA asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition the current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS).

Some have argued that what NTIA is doing is tantamount to “giving away the Internet”. In fact, literally minutes after NTIA's announcement, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) tweeted: “Every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the Internet to an undefined group. This is very, very dangerous.” “Congress needs to prevent the Obama administration from giving away U.S. control over the Internet to any international body,” said Americans for Limited Government. “Perhaps this latest egregious action by the Obama administration in their quest to deconstruct the United States will finally wake Congress up to their "power of the purse" responsibility as a co-equal partner in government.”

Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD) said the Internet “needs -- and deserves -- a strong multistakeholder system free from the control of any government or governmental entity,” and he vowed the committee would keep watch over the transition. “There are people who want to see the Internet fall into the grip of the U.N. or who would allow ICANN to become an unaccountable organization with the power to control the Internet, and we cannot allow them to determine how this process plays out,” he said. But he added, “I trust the innovators and entrepreneurs more than the bureaucrats -- whether they’re in DC or Brussels.”

A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said lawmakers “must consider this carefully and ensure this transition reflects the unanimous statement Congress made last year,” adding, “Under no circumstances should this contract transition to a government or government entity.”

“While I certainly agree our nation must stridently review our procedures regarding surveillance in light of the NSA controversy, to put ourselves in a situation where censorship-laden governments like China or Russia could take a firm hold of the Internet itself is truly a scary thought,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). “I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee and with the Commerce Department on this, because -- to be blunt -- the ‘global internet community’ this would empower has no First Amendment.”

On April 2, 35 Republican senators -- including Sens. Thune, Rubio, and Scott -- sent a letter to Assistant Secretary of Commerce Strickling seeking clarification on the NTIA's plan. The letter expresses strong support for “the existing bottom-up, multistakeholder approach to Internet governance,” and cautions: “We must not allow the IANA functions to fall under the control of repressive governments, America’s enemies, or unaccountable bureaucrats.” The letter goes on to say: “The global community of Internet stakeholders should act deliberately and transparently as it formulates a possible proposal to transition the IANA functions to a nongovernmental entity. The multistakeholder model of Internet governance and the IANA functions are far too important for this process to be rushed or to be done behind closed doors.” Among other things, the letter asks the Administration to “explain why it is in our national interest to transition the IANA functions,” and how NTIA will ensure “the IANA functions do not end up being controlled, directly or indirectly, by a government or inter-governmental entity.”

Several Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), applauded the planned transition. He called it “the next phase” toward “an independent entity that reflects the broad diversity of the global Internet community.”

On April 2, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on the NTIA’s announcement. In a press release after the hearing, Subcommittee leadership said, “Members sought answers regarding the Obama administration’s proposal instructing the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to explore ways to remove the United States from its oversight role of the Domain Name System and replace it with a different multistakeholder governance model. Members expressed concern about any change that could leave the Internet vulnerable to power grabs from international governments and sought commitments that the administration would not permit any outcome that fails to protect the ideals of Internet freedom and openness.”

The Washington Post reported that:

  • Rep. John Shimkus (R-II) spent nearly all his allotted time trying to get Administration and ICANN officials to endorse a Government Accountability Office probe into the plan. Rep. Shimkus recently introduced the DOTCOM Act, a bill attempting to block the transition over concerns that it would give "the Vladimir Putins of the world a new venue to push their anti-freedom agendas." "We pledged to defend the Constitution and fight all enemies, foreign and domestic," Rep Shimkus said.
  • Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) speculated that the multistakeholder plan could let China and Russia censer not only Internet content, but even Web site addresses themselves. "I know we're only talking about domain names," he said, "but they can say, 'This is tied to a domain name, because we're not going to issue you a domain name.'"
  • Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), one of the DOTCOM Act's cosponsors, said it would be a sham for Washington to relinquish its power over the Internet in the name of ensuring that no single country can control it. "How can the U.S. government tell the world to accept a multistakeholder process when within our government, the Federal Communications Commission is pushing forward to implement net neutrality rules?" she asked.

The Washington Post's Brian Fung writes, "Blackburn's question says a lot about how poorly some in Congress may grasp the issue. Blackburn says she is opposed to the multistakeholder process because she believes it could enable foreign governments to impose regulations on the Internet. She would rather retain greater American control over the Internet in order to deny other governments the opportunity to interfere. But, said ICANN chief executive Fadi Chehadé, the United States' symbolic role at the head of the addressing system is precisely what gives Russia and China the grounds to call for a different system.
'The more we exert one government's influence, the more people will want to move it elsewhere,' he said."

Larry Strickling, the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and head of the NTIA, testified at the hearing.

In June 1998, NTIA issued a statement of policy on the privatization of the Internet Domain Name System (DNS), known as the DNS White Paper. The White Paper concluded that the core functions relevant to the DNS should be primarily performed through private sector management. To this end, NTIA stated that it was prepared to enter into an agreement with a new not-for-profit corporation formed by private sector Internet stakeholders to coordinate and manage policy for the Internet DNS. Private sector interests formed ICANN for this purpose, and, in the fall of 1998, NTIA entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with ICANN to transition technical DNS coordination and management functions to the private sector.

As the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions operator, ICANN maintains, updates and makes publicly available registries related to the three IANA functions.

  • First, ICANN is the central repository for protocol name and number registries used in many Internet protocols. It reviews and assigns unique values based on established policies and guidelines as developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
  • Second, it coordinates allocations of IP (Internet Protocol) and AS (Autonomous System) numbers to the Regional Internet Registries (RIR) who then distribute IP and AS numbers to Internet Service Providers and others within their geographic regions.
  • Third, ICANN processes root zone change requests for Top Level Domains (TLDs) and makes publicly available a Root Zone WHOIS database with current and verified contact information for all TLD registry operators.

In all three cases ICANN, as the IANA functions operator, applies the policies developed by the interested parties when completing requests related to the various IANA functions customers. [See for more on IANA functions]

NTIA has played no role in the internal governance or day-to-day operations of ICANN. NTIA has never had the contractual authority to exercise traditional regulatory oversight over ICANN. NTIA’s role in the IANA functions includes the clerical role of administering changes to the authoritative root zone file and, more generally, serving as the historic steward of the DNS via the administration of the IANA functions contract. The NTIA role does not involve the exercise of discretion or judgment with respect to such change requests. From the inception of ICANN, the U.S. Government and Internet stakeholders envisioned that the U. S. Government’s role in the IANA functions would be temporary. The DNS White Paper stated that “agreement must be reached between the U.S. Government and the new corporation (ICANN) relating to the transfer of the functions currently performed by IANA.”

Strickling reiterated that on March 14, 2014, NTIA announced its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community: “This marks a milestone toward the final phase of the privatization of the DNS first outlined by the U.S. government in 1998. To accomplish this, we have called upon ICANN to convene a multistakeholder process to develop the transition plan. While looking to stakeholders and those most directly served by the IANA functions to work through the technical details, NTIA deliberately established a clear framework to guide the discussion. Specifically, we communicated to ICANN that the transition proposal must have broad community support and address four principles.”

The transition proposal must:

  1. Support and enhance the multistakeholder model. Specifically, the process used to develop the proposal should be open, transparent, bottom-up, and garner broad, international stakeholder consensus support.
  2. Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS.
  3. Meet the needs and expectations of the global customers and partners of the IANA services.
  4. Maintain the openness of the Internet.

NTIA also made clear that it would not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution. The NTIA has often noted that this is “[c]onsistent with the clear policy expressed in bipartisan resolutions of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives (S.Con.Res.50 and H.Con.Res.127), which affirmed the United States support for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.”

While the current IANA functions contract expires September 30, 2015, there are two separate two-year option periods that would extend the contract for up to four years. Accordingly, NTIA believes there is sufficient time for stakeholders to work through the ICANN-convened process to develop an acceptable transition proposal.

“There is no one party – government or industry, including the U. S. Government – that controls the Internet,” Strickling testified. “The Internet is a decentralized network of networks. What we have in fact done is demonstrate leadership and strategic vision by laying out a framework with clear conditions to finalize a process that has been ongoing for 16 years.”

Supporters of the transition laid out by NTIA include: AT&T, Verizon, Microsoft, Google, Cisco, and Comcast, and public interest groups like Public Knowledge and the Center for Democracy and Technology, and associations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, and the Software and Information Industry Association.

In Myths and Facts on NTIA Announcement on Intent to Transition Key Internet Domain Name Functions, NTIA addressed the assertion by some that this transition of the Internet DNS to the global multistakeholder community is meant to quell international criticism following disclosure of National Security Agency surveillance practices. NTIA stresses that the transition is part of a process set out sixteen years ago. The Administration believes the timing is right to start the transition process. ICANN as an organization has matured and taken steps in recent years to improve its accountability and transparency and its technical competence. At the same time, international support continues to grow for the multistakeholder model.

NTIA also states that the U.S. government’s role with respect to the Domain Name system is a technical one. The work has been content neutral and policy and judgment free. Free expression online exists and flourishes not because of U.S. government oversight with respect to the Domain Name System, or because of any asserted special relationship that the U.S. has with ICANN. Instead, free expression is protected because of the open, decentralized nature of the Internet and the neutral manner in which the technical aspects of the Internet are managed.

ICANN Chief Executive Fadi Chehadé downplayed concerns that Russia, China or other countries could exert control and restrict the web's openness. He said the multistakeholder model -- with governments, the private sector and other interested parties reaching consensus with equal power -- will continue to restrain countries seeking to limit the web's openness and freedom. "Everyone is focused on these three, four countries ... but in between we have 150 other countries that value the same values we do," Chehadé said. "Our commitment to the multistakeholder model is not so much for the few who do not believe in it, it should be to the great middle mass that would like to see us stand by it and they will stand with us. This is the bet we need to make."

At the hearing, Strickling said, "No one has yet to explain to me the mechanism by which any of these individual governments could somehow seize control of the Internet as a whole."

"Do you really think that (Russian President) Vladimir Putin ... can't figure out some way to get control? China and Russia can be very resourceful," Rep Steve Scalise (R-LA) fired back.

"The multistakeholder model, it stops them," Chehadé told lawmakers in response. "I agree that people will talk about capturing (control of ICANN), but they haven't. For 15 years ICANN has operated without one government or any government capturing the decision making."

Both Chehadé and Strickling pledged to not rush the transition. "If we don't get this right, there's a whole world of damage that could be done," Chehadé said. "If we finish it in 18 months, great. If we don't, then you know what, it doesn't matter, let's get it right."

Obviously, this is a debate that will not soon go away. We’ll be following as the transition takes shape – and we’ll see you in the Headlines.

By Kevin Taglang.