Understanding IANA Stewardship Transition

Posted by Smarika Kumar at Jun 22, 2014 03:20 AM |
Smarika Kumar describes the process of the IANA stewardship transition, and enumerates what the NTIA announcement does and does not do.

NTIA Announcement and ICANN-convened Processes:

On 14 March 2014, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the US Government announcedits intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community”. These key Internet domain name functions refer to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions. For this purpose, the 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)”. This was welcome news for the global Internet community, which has been criticising unilateral US Government oversight of Critical Internet Resources for many years now. NTIA further announced that IANA transition proposal must have broad community support and should address the following four principles:

  • Support and enhance the multistakeholder model;
  • Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS;
  • Meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and
  • Maintain the openness of the Internet.

Subsequently, during ICANN49 in Singapore (March 23-27, 2014), ICANN held flurried discussions to gather initial community feedback from participants to come up with a Draft Proposal of the Principles, Mechanisms and Process to Develop a Proposal to Transition NTIA’s Stewardship of the IANA Functions on 8 April 2014, which was open to public comments until 8 May 2014, which was further extended to 31 May 2014. Responses by various stakeholders were collected in this very short period and some of them were incorporated into a Revised Proposal issued by ICANN on 6th June 2014. ICANN also unilaterally issued a Scoping Document defining the scope of the process for developing the proposal and also specifying what was not part of the scope. This Scoping Document came under severe criticism by various commentators, but was not amended.

ICANN also initiated a separate but parallel process to discuss enhancement of its accountability on 6 May 2014. This was launched upon widespread distress over the fact that ICANN had excluded its role as operator of IANA functions from the Scoping Document, as well as over questions of accountability raised by the community at ICANN49 in Singapore. In the absence of ICANN’s contractual relationship with NTIA to operate the IANA functions, it remains unclear how ICANN will stay accountable upon the transition. The accountability process looks to address the same through the ICANN community. The issue of ICANN accountability is then envisioned to be coordination within ICANN itself through an ICANN Accountability Working Group comprised of community members and a few subject matter experts.

What are the IANA Functions?

Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA functions consist of three separate tasks:

  1. Maintaining a central repository for protocol name and number registries used in many Internet protocols.
  2. Co-ordinating the allocation of Internet Protocol (IP) and Autonomous System (AS) numbers to the Regional Internet Registries, who then distribute IP and AS numbers to ISPs and others within their geographic regions.
  3. Processing root zone change requests for Top Level Domains (TLDs) and making the Root Zone WHOIS database consisting of publicly available information for all TLD registry operators.

The first two of the abovementioned functions are operated by ICANN in consonance with policy developed at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and Address Supporting Organisation (ASO) respectively, both of which exist under the ICANN umbrella.

The performance of last of these functions is distributed between ICANN and Verisign. NTIA has a Cooperative Agreement with Verisign to perform the related root zone management functions. The related root zone management functions are the management of the root zone “zone signing key” (ZSK), as well as implementation of changes to and distribution of the DNS authoritative root zone file, which is the authoritative registry containing the lists of names and addresses for all top level domains.

Currently, the US Government oversees this entire set of operations by contracting with ICANN as well as Verisign to execute the IANA functions. Though the US Government does not interfere generally in operations of either ICANN or Verisign in their role as operators of IANA functions, it cannot be denied that it exercises oversight on both the operators of IANA functions, through these contracts.

Import of the NTIA Announcement:

The NTIA announcement of 14th March intends to initiate the withdrawal of such oversight of IANA functions by the NTIA in order to move towards global multistakeholder governance. NTIA has asked ICANN to initiate a process to decide upon what such global multistakeholder governance of IANA functions may look like. The following diagram presents the current governance structure of IANA functions and the areas that the NTIA announcement seeks to change:

NTIA Announcement

The IANA Oversight Mechanism (Source)

What does the NTIA Announcement NOT DO?

The NTIA announcement DOES NOT frame a model for governance of IANA functions once it withdraws its oversight role.  NTIA has asked ICANN to convene a process, which would figure the details of IANA transition and propose an administrative structure for IANA functions once the NTIA withdraws its oversight role. But what this new administrative structure would look like has not itself been addressed in the NTIA announcement. As per the NTIA announcement, the new administrative structure is yet to be decided by a global multistakeholder community in accordance with the four principles outlined by the NTIA through a process, which ICANN shall convene.

The NTIA announcement DOES NOT limit discussions and participation in IANA transition process to within the ICANN community. NTIA has asked ICANN to convene “global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition” IANA functions. This means all global stakeholders participation, including that of Governments and Civil Society is sought for the IANA transition process. ICANN has been asked “to work collaboratively with the directly affected parties, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the Internet Society (ISOC), the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), top level domain name operators, VeriSign, and other interested global stakeholders”, in the NTIA announcement. This however does not signify that discussions and participation in development of proposal for IANA transition needs to be limited to the ICANN community or the technical community.  In fact, ICANN has itself said that the list of events provided as “Timeline of Events” in its Draft Proposal of 8 April 2014 for engagement in development of a proposal for IANA transition is non-exhaustive. This means proposal for IANA transition can be developed by different stakeholders, including governments and civil society in different fora appropriate to their working, including at the IGF and WSIS+10.

The NTIA announcement DOES NOT mean devolution of IANA functions administration upon ICANN. NTIA chooses ICANN and Verisign to operate the IANA functions. If NTIA withdraws from its role, the question whether ICANN or Verisign should operate the IANA functions at all becomes an open one, and should be subject to deliberation. By merely asking ICANN to convene the process, the NTIA announcement in no way assigns any administration of IANA functions to ICANN. It must be remembered that the NTIA announcement says that key Internet domain name functions shall transition to the global multistakeholder community, and not the ICANN community.

The NTIA announcement DOES NOT prevent the possibility of removal of ICANN from its role as operator of IANA functions. While ICANN has tried to frame the Scoping Document in a language to prevent any discussions on its role as operator of IANA functions, the question whether ICANN should continue in its operator role remains an open one. There are at least 12 submissions made in response to ICANN’s Draft Proposal by varied stakeholders, which in fact, call for the separation of ICANN’s role as policy maker (through IETF, ASO, gNSO, ccNSO), and ICANN’s role as the operator of IANA functions.  Such calls for separation come from private sector, civil society, as well as the technical community, among others. Such separation was also endorsed in the final NETmundial outcome document (paragraph 27). Governments have, in general, expressed no opinion on such separation in response to ICANN’s Draft Proposal. It is however urged that governments express their opinion in favour of such separation to prevent consolidation of both policy making and implementation within ICANN, which would lead to increased potential situations for the ICANN Board to abuse its powers.


Smarika Kumar is a graduate of the National Law Institute University, Bhopal, and a member of the Alternative Law Forum, a collective of lawyers aiming to integrate alternative lawyering with critical research, alternative dispute resolution, pedagogic interventions and sustained legal interventions in social issues. Her areas of interest include interdisciplinary research on the Internet, issues affecting indigenous peoples, eminent domain, traditional knowledge and pedagogy.

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