IANA Transition Needs Clear Benchmarks and Safety Valves

Posted by J. Scott Evans, Trademark Director and Associate General Counsel

Note: This article ran in CircleID on June 15, 2016

The transition of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to the multi-stakeholder community is one step closer to becoming reality. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) approved the proposal submitted by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to privatize oversight of the internet domain name system’s central root zone last week, crossing a critical hurdle for advocates of the transition. However, two recent Congressional hearings have put the IANA transition back in the crosshairs of many policymakers and political pundits, keeping the likelihood of the transition occurring before September up in the air once again.

While there are a number of legitimate concerns that still need to be ironed out before the transition occurs, some members of Congress still seem intent on punting the decision for another year or more. Rather than debating when the transition should occur, we need a robust discussion about the benchmarks that ICANN needs to meet before September and what off-ramps or safety valves can be created in case these benchmarks are not met.

Before the Memorial Day recess, the Senate Commerce Committee evaluated the transition proposal submitted by ICANN to see if a short-term extension is potentially needed, and some members still seem hesitant to allow a transition to occur at all. On the same day, a House Appropriations subcommittee reported the annual Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill with language forbidding the Commerce Department from using funds to facilitate the transition. This hesitancy to take concrete steps to ensure the transition occurs on time should be disconcerting to the multi-stakeholder community that has invested years of hard work into the proposal.

Delaying the transition would do the one thing that Congressional Republicans fear the most: embolden foreign governments that want to exert greater control over internet governance. Members of Congress need to understand that this transition is in the best interest of their constituents. Allowing the transition to remain in limbo only increases the risk of foreign governments cracking down on free speech or fracturing the internet into pieces by developing their own networks. This balkanization of the internet is the antithesis of what a smooth IANA transition hopes to accomplish.

Instead, policymakers should be working to ensure benchmarks are reached and safety valves are in place in case ICANN fails to achieve these goals. Benchmarks for the proper role of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and providing additional guidance about ICANN’s mission statement need to be outlined. Because ICANN’s recent behavior has raised concerns, ensuring an off-ramp or safety valve is in place if ICANN fails to reach these goals is needed more than ever. The ICANN board’s recent decision to vote on bylaw changes just a few days after public comments were submitted should raise some eyebrows. If ICANN continues to not allow adequate for stakeholders to raise legitimate concerns, NTIA should be ready with a course of action.

The multi-stakeholder community has made too much progress to ignore their hard work at this stage. They have worked for years to develop a proposal that ensures the internet remains a tool of economic and social change that is free from governmental overreach. With the appropriate benchmarks and safety valves in place, the multi-stakeholder community should continue to move closer to making the transition a reality.