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ICANN stewardship transfer looms amid doubts over deadline

Delegates from the global online community gather in Singapore to discuss transfer of stewardship from the U.S. government to ICANN, but doubts remain over whether the September 30 deadline will be met.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

In just over seven months, the administrative functions of the world's web traffic will no longer fall under U.S. jurisdiction and will be transferred to a multistakeholder grassroot-led organization, rid of any government control.

That is, if the U.S. government sees through its pledge to relinquish control and approves the transfer plan by end-September, 2015. There has been much scepticism that this transition, which has been in discussions for the past 15 years, will happen before the deadline and the doubts continue to linger as delegates worldwide congregate at the ICANN 52nd Public Meeting this week in Singapore.

September 30, 2015, marks the date the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) contract, procured by the U.S. government, will expire and key internet domain name functions carried out under this agreement will be handed over to ICANN. These include technical and administrative functions related to the DNS root zone such as process checks and changes to the root zone file.

Detailed work on the stewardship transfer began in earnest last year in Singapore and ICANN officials have regrouped in the city-state this week to outline their progress. More than 1,200 delegates from the global community are expected to participate physically or remotely in this week's meetings, according to ICANN.

Work on the transfer proposal had been divided into various working groups around three key focus areas--names, numbers, and protocols--and that comprised 134 people from various countries, with Asia-Pacific contributing the most.

During his presentation, Jonathan Robinson, co-chair of the Cross Community Working Group (CWG) on Naming Related Functions, touched on the recommended models under which ICANN could operate after the stewardship transfer. These included the possibility for a new "Contract Company" to be established and assume responsibility for selecting and contracting an IANA functions operator, envisaged in the various models to be ICANN.

The various working models detail the different conditions under which the Contract Company would operate, including as an internal or external entity of ICANN.

Key challenges Robinson's team faced revolved around questions such as who should replace the U.S. National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) as the body responsible for overseeing the performance of the IANA functions. He added that the legal advice was being sought to analyze the proposed working models.

As delegate after delegate took to the stage to discuss the progress of their working groups, delving into a range of issues that include trademarks, attendees at the meeting questioned the complexity of the transfer plan and raised doubts over whether the September deadline will be met.

One attendee asked if it was necessary to even have a Contract Company, noting that the proposal to create new entities that had never been formed before seemed overly complex and contrary to the need to ensure stability in the stewardship transfer.

He agreed with the need for accountability mechanisms within ICANN, noting that this was what the WCG was aiming to establish, and added that this as well as determining what the IANA functions should encompass should remain the main focus of discussion.

ICANN must be given sovereignty

While doubts linger over whether the September 30 deadline will be met, the need for ICANN to be free from any government control is unquestionable.

Paul Wilson, director-general of Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) and a member on the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG), noted that nations today need to seek the approval of the U.S. government if they want to make changes to the root zone or ownership of the country domain name.

"After September, the U.S. government no longer has this special role. So that means if someone wants to change '.sg', for instance, the U.S. government no longer approves it," Wilson said in an interview with ZDNet. "That's an important issue because it has been the key political question over the years as to why one government should have that special role when the internet is global."

"It's an issue of sovereignty. A government regards its country domain as sovereignty so it doesn't sit well if the U.S. government has control over that," he noted. "And it's good governance overall to move from a U.S. to multistakeholder [ownership] where everyone is on an equal footing."

During his opening address at the ICANN Public Meeting, Singapore's Minster for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said the country had always supported the need for ICANN to operate on a multistakeholder model.

"We have consistently articulated our belief that no one person, organization, or even country, has a monopoly on the expertise and wisdom needed to meet the challenges we are facing on the internet on a day-to-day basis," he said. "Decisions on issues pertaining to internet governance should be made in an inclusive fashion, while being responsive to the needs of both industry and consumers. Such an inclusive, multistakeholder approach will enhance the internet's role as a catalyst for information flow and economic activity."

"They should not be the sole domain of any one stakeholder, whether governmental, inter-governmental or non-governmental," Yaacob said.

Describing the role of governments, the Singapore minister said they should implement policies to ensure access to a secure internet environment as well as establish a "business-friendly" landscape for service providers and operators.

Governments also must enforce laws online and in the physical world to safeguard public interest, such as preventing online harassment.

That the September 2015 timeline is just a few months away isn't lost on Yaacob, who noted "the timeline is tight", while lauding the efforts of the ICG and other working groups for their efforts in developing the transition plan.

He added that Singapore's own registrar SGNIC had been working with ICANN and other regional organizations.

Is the U.S. on board or not?

Whether NTIA will approve ICANN's transition plan remains to be seen, as reports suggest the U.S. government may be reluctant to do so. The Obama administration had attempted to address such concerns.

In his speech at the State of the Net Conference last month, NTIA's assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, Larry Strickling, said: "We are as aware as anyone that we should not do anything that interferes with an open and participatory multistakeholder process. We support a process where all ideas are welcome and where participants are able to test fully all transition options.

"We are looking for a plan that preserves ICANN as a multistakeholder organization outside of government control, which the community develops through an open and transparent multistakeholder process and that has the broad support of stakeholders. No stakeholder or set of stakeholders has a veto over this process whether it be governments, industry or civil society.

"We will not accept a transition proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution. In addition, the proposal must maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the DNS," Strickling said.

The question then is: by whose standards will "security, stability, and resiliency" be measured against?

To which, Wilson replied: "That's an important question, but it's also important to understand that ICANN doesn't have a role in ensuring internet security across the board."

While the organization must continue to safeguard the DNS to prevent hackers from corrupting the database, the U.S. government has not said that ICANN is now also responsible for the security of the internet, he added.

On the other hand, he noted that by ensuring the stewardship transfer proceeds as scheduled, any perceived risk that the U.S. government could interfere with Singapore's ".sg" domain names, for instance, will be removed.

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