NTIA to give up control of the Internet's root

Posted by Pranesh Prakash at Mar 18, 2014 06:15 PM |
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On Friday evening the U.S. government's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced that it was setting into motion a transition to give up a few powers that it holds over some core Internet functions, and that this would happen by September 2015. Pranesh Prakash provides a brief response to that announcement.

As it noted in the NTIA's press release:

NTIA’s responsibility includes the procedural role of administering changes to the authoritative root zone file – the database containing the lists of names and addresses of all top-level domains – as well as serving as the historic steward of the [Domain Name System (DNS)]. NTIA currently contracts with [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN] to carry out the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions and has a Cooperative Agreement with Verisign under which it performs related root zone management functions. Transitioning NTIA out of its role marks the final phase of the privatization of the DNS as outlined by the U.S. Government in 1997.

This move was welcomed by "Internet technical leaders".

While this announcement cannot be said to be unexpected, it is nonetheless an important one and is also a welcome one. The NTIA seems to have foreclosed any option of the US government's role being performed by any government-led organization by noting in their press release, "NTIA will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution," once again reaffirming their belief in American exceptionalism: the NTIA could fulfil its role despite being a government, but now even a body involving multiple stakeholders can't replace the NTIA's role if it is going to be government-led.

Unfortunately, this announcement to relax American "stewardship" or "oversight" over some aspects of the Internet's technical functioning cannot restore the trust that has been lost due to actions taken by the US government and US companies. This new announcement won't change the US government's ability to 'tap' the Internet, nor will it affect their ability to unilaterally seize .com/.net/.name/.org/.edu/.tv/.cc/.us and other US-based domain names. Nor will a shift away from NTIA oversight lead to any of the chilling visions that some believe might lie in our future: the fears of the Association of National Advertisers and of some politicians and members of the US Congress is based on ignorance of what NTIA's role is.

The European Commission in a communiqué last month noted: "recent revelations of large-scale surveillance have called into question the stewardship of the U.S. when it comes to Internet governance". Unfortunately, the U.S. giving up that stewardship role will not prevent the continuation of their large-scale surveillance, just as the lack of such a stewardship role has not prevented other governments — U.K., India, Canada, Sweden, France, etc. — from engaging in large-scale surveillance.

There are three main benefits from the U.S. giving up this role.

  • First, it will put an end to the political illegitimacy of the U.S. government having a core authority in a global system, somehow making it first among equals;

  • Second, will focus light on ICANN, which under US oversight performs the IANA functions, and might, one hopes, lead to needed reform in ICANN's other functions;

  • Third, it will allow us to collectively move on from this dreaded political issue at the heart of Internet governance, which nevertheless is of little practical consequence if ICANN's accountability mechanisms are strengthened. As difficult as it may be, ICANN has to be accountable not just to one government or another but to the world, and ensuring that accountability to all doesn't become accountability to none, as NetChoice's Steve DelBianco put it, is the formidable task ahead of us.

Yet, all the ICANN reform in the world will still not lead to a less spied-upon, more open, and more equitable Internet.

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