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US government tweaks internet handover date: 1 October 2016

Department of Commerce to extend IANA contract by one year

The US government will officially hand over control of the top level of the internet on 1 October 2016 – a year later than planned.

The Department of Commerce announced on Monday that it will extend the IANA contract, today held by domain overseer ICANN, by one year, meaning that it will expire on 30 September 2016.

At that point, under plans still being finalized, it is expected that a subsidiary of ICANN will take over the contract and so remove what has long been a point of global political tension: a single government in control of the top level of the internet.

In the announcement, Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling noted that the one-year extension comes as a result of lengthy and ongoing discussions over how to replace the US government's role. It was originally hoped that the process would end this September. He wrote:

When we announced our intent in March 2014 to complete the privatization of the DNS, we noted that the base period of our contract with ICANN to perform technical functions related to the DNS, known as the IANA functions, expired on September 30, 2015.

However, it has become increasingly apparent over the last few months that the community needs time to complete its work, have the plan reviewed by the U.S. Government, and then implement it if it is approved.

The delay was caused in large part by ICANN's staff and board trying to direct the process to move control away from the US government, including a determined effort to avoid having to make any changes to its own structure and processes.

That effort was ultimately put down by the internet community, but led to two separate but inter-related tracks: one looking at the contract itself and one looking into improving ICANN's accountability. The second track started approximately six months later.

The process has also been slowed by the internet community itself, which has a tendency to confuse talking with progress and frequently replaces hard decisions with additional procedural steps.

How long?!

Back in May, when it became clear that the process would not be completed by September, Strickling formally asked the internet community to come up with an estimate for how much longer it would take.

At ICANN's meeting in Buenos Aires, initial estimates were that the process would be completed by June 2016, but over the course of the week and especially when the results were viewed at the end, followers of the process started suggesting a full additional year was required.

As well as the need for the Commerce Department to review the final plan, Congress has awarded itself 30 days to review it.

Critically, in the announcement Strickling also addresses the contract that the US government has with Verisign. Under the current system, ICANN follows its processes to decide any changes to be made at the top level of the internet (as the IANA contractor) and the US government simply checks that the correct procedures have been followed before approving the change.

However, the US government also holds a second contract with the operator of the "A" root (and the dot-com registry) Verisign. It is Verisign that makes the actual change to the internet's "root zone," and it only takes instructions from the US government, not ICANN as the IANA contract holder.

Strickling notes:

In preparation for the implementation phase of the IANA stewardship transition, NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] also asked Verisign and ICANN to submit a proposal detailing how best to remove NTIA’s administrative role associated with root zone management, which the groups working on the transition were not asked to address.

We asked Verisign and ICANN to submit a proposal detailing how best to do this in a manner that maintains the security, stability, and resiliency of the DNS.

Under the current root zone management system, Verisign edits and distributes the root zone file after it has received authorization to do so from NTIA. Verisign and ICANN have developed a proposal that outlines a technical plan and testing regime for phasing out the largely clerical role NTIA currently plays in this process. The testing will occur in a parallel environment that will not disrupt the current operation of the root zone management system.

In other words, ICANN the corporation has devised its own plan with Verisign for replacing the US government role in actually approving changes to the internet. We had not heard any mention of that plan before today's announcement. The formal report of the working group devising the IANA transition was also clearly unaware of the process, noting that it did not know what the NTIA was going to do with respect to the second contract. The NTIA published the plan [PDF] at the same time as the announcement.

The two plans – for the IANA transition itself and improvements to ICANN's accountability – are currently out for public comment.

Although the one-year extension puts a solid date on when the current contract will expire, given the difficulty of the current process, Strickling has been careful not to say it represents the actual date of handover.

He notes that the Department of Commerce will still retain the power to extend the contract further if it needs to. He noted: "Beyond 2016, we have options to extend the contract for up to three additional years if needed."

However, everyone from the DoC to ICANN to the internet community will want to hit that September 2016 deadline, not only so they don't come across as incompetent but also because if the deadline isn't hit, the opportunity to move the contract away from the US government at all may be lost.

In November 2016, the US presidential elections will be held and there is no certainty at all that the incoming president, especially if he is a Republican, will approve the handover of the IANA contract. ®

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