US government dangles internet control contract
Mind games over IANA
The US government has taken the extraordinary step of dangling the contract for control of the internet above the heads of the world.
In a "Sources Sought Notice" put out by the Department of Commerce (DoC) late on Tuesday and only just noticed by the internet community, it is asking for "potential respondents" for the contract to run the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
The IANA "function" is the maintenance of the main root file of the internet, the internet's directory. It decides who runs all the branches of the internet, including all the world's country codes such as .uk for Britain or .de for Germany.
By not stating the process as a "rebid", which the US government is entitled to do, the notice has been widely seen by the industry as a stark warning to internet overseeing organisation ICANN to pull its socks up.
ICANN derives much of its real power from the fact that it holds the IANA contract and has frequently been accused of abusing that control to push its own agenda. Despite the fact that in public the US government is forced to praise ICANN, the two remain entwined in an unhappy marriage.
To make matters all the more complicated, the DoC actually retains control over ICANN and a memorandum of understanding between the two companies is due to expire later this year.
The DoC can't be seen to be abusing its influence, however, for fear the rest of the world will simply split from the current system and build their own versions of the internet. This potential "balkanisation" of the net has become a topic of real concern in the past few months.
As for the actual IANA function, despite a huge increase in its budget, while at the same time doing everything possible to make IANA and ICANN the same thing, it is still running essentially the same system it has for years.
This has infuriated internet registries across the world to the extent that the representative of many ccTLDs, Centr, set up and has been running an alternative test system called e-IANA. e-IANA automates many of the IANA functions and so provides countries with a degree of autonomy over their own internet. So far, ICANN/IANA has steadfastly failed to hand over much of its power in the wider interests on the internet.
It remains uncertain however who will respond to the US government's call. Centr said: "We will continue to work with the IANA to ensure efficient and effective service." NeuStar may be interested in bidding. Afilias is keen to grab new contracts. Even the UK's Nominet could be interested - as long as it manages to pass fundamental changes in its company structure that are up for a vote next month.
But even if the DoC does receive several interested parties, there is no guarantee it will actually put the contract up for rebid.
It is a very interesting development, nonetheless, and an indication that ICANN can not expect to drag its feet any longer.®