Congress blocks ICANN transition. Good.

The "Cromnibus" budget bill blocks the Obama administration's plans to relinquish control of Internet domain name and address administration. We're all better off this way.
Written by Larry Seltzer, Contributor

When Congress passes a bill that's 1,603 pages long you can be sure that there's a great deal in it that is noticed by few people, including the members who voted for it. Such is the case with "Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015," a.k.a. the "Cromnibus."

This is an appropriations bill that will keep the government running through the fiscal year (ending September 30, 2015). When Congress says what money will be spent on it also can say what money may not be spent on. One example of this is in section 540 on page 214 of the budget bill:

SEC. 540. (a) None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to relinquish the responsibility of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration during fiscal year 2015 with respect to Internet domain name system functions, including responsibility with respect to the authoritative root zone file and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority functions.

(b) Subsection (a) of this section shall expire on September 30, 2015.

In short, the Obama administration may not follow through on its plans to transition control of ICANN to a non-governmental body.

ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit California-based corporation created in 1998 for the purpose of administering certain key systems on the Internet, specifically the IP addressing and the DNS. Since then it has performed these functions under a contract with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Back in March, a top Commerce official told the Washington Post that the government planned to transition control of these functions from Commerce to an outside oversight body, the nature of which was unspecified.

One way to look at this is that now work on the transition can not occur until next October, but I think the whole notion is now toast. If they can get this into a bill and nobody objects loudly, they can keep on doing it. Where is the constituency for handing over control of the Internet plumbing? I submit that there are few members of Congress who would speak openly in support of it, and even for them it's not a high-priority issue.

Even before Edward Snowden spilled the beans, many abroad expressed dissatisfaction with the US having such control. Friendly governments such as those in Iran and Russia think they should have more control over what happens on the Internet, and we all know how China has already put a huge investment into controlling the Internet in their territory. Tech companies like Google are running away from Russia. How much more effective they could be with a friendly and compliant Internet governing authority.

When I originally wrote about the Commerce decision I wrote that the administration had ruled out the United Nations as a candidate for the transfer of authority, but I can no longer find where I got that claim. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), founded in 1865 at the International Telegraph Convention and now a UN agency, has attempted to insert itself into that role, and from a certain point of view they are a logical body for it. The problem is that we would be complete idiots to entrust the administration of the Internet to the United Nations, which has shown itself over the years happy to accommodate the many of its members who run police states.

The US government has taken a hands-off approach to the actual work of ICANN. Someone tell me if I'm wrong about this, but I don't know of any cases where it has used the authority it contracts out to ICANN to promote any self-interested agenda, unless you count a free and open Internet as such an agenda.

Not that ICANN is necessarily the ideal governor for the DNS. The main criticism of it is that it serves the agenda of the businesses that pay its fees, i.e. the domain registrars, and this sounds right to me. But if the goal is to govern the Internet with a multi-stakeholder organization and process, that's what you have at ICANN.

Hat tip on this to John Levine, who agrees that we won't see a transition for "a long, long time." John seems disappointed by this and blames it on Republicans, but I think he greatly overestimates the support for transition among Democrats. His argument that ICANN is not important to Washington and that it therefore will not be worth the expenditure of any political capital is spot-on.

How many politicians want to tell the voters that they were the ones to hand over Internet governance to foreigners? Obviously it's not quite that simple, but that's the story that will be told. It's all fine with me because I trust the US government as a backstop against Internet regulatory abuse more than I trust some unspecified group of International bureaucrats.

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