US looks at plan to hand over world's DNS – and screams blue murder

Assistant Commerce Secretary starts playing Twenty Questions over IANA power shift

The US government official in charge of the critical Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) contract wants a course change in how the globe's core DNS systems will be moved out of Uncle Sam's hands.

In a speech at the State of the Net conference in Washington DC on Tuesday, assistant commerce secretary Larry Strickling raised some questions over the current proposal.

He made it plain that that the working group in charge of the process has over-engineered a solution to replace the US government from the running of the IANA body, and may even create more problems than it solves.

IANA is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, a department of ICANN that oversees the worldwide DNS root zone that keeps the internet glued together, allocates IP addresses, and carries out other crucial behind-the-scenes tasks for netizens.

ICANN runs IANA under contract with the US government – that contract is not expected to be renewed this year, leaving the future of IANA in doubt, hence the working group's efforts to propose a solution.

Strickling's message is in keeping with much of the public comment on the proposals, which the working group has so far failed to take into account.

He put forward four questions, each of which highlights a problem with the existing idea.

The draft proposes the creation of three or four new entities to be involved in the naming related processes. Could the creation of any new entity interfere with the security and stability of the DNS during and after the transition? Given that the community will need to develop, implement and test new structures and processes prior to a final transition, can it get all this done in a timeframe consistent with the expectations of all stakeholders?

This question highlights a common criticism that the four-entity proposal is too complex - something that the working group has failed to take on board since its discussions continue to focus on the same basic premise (but with tweaks) to what each group is empowered to do.

Does the proposal ensure a predictable and reliable process for customers of root zone management services? Under the current system, registry operators can be confident of the timing of review and implementation of routine root zone updates. If a new committee takes up what is currently a routine procedural check, how will the community protect against processing delays and the potential for politicization of the system?

This highlights the fact that the current proposal inserts into the process of updating the root zone not one but two new entities. The working group failed to ask either IANA staff or the US government how the IANA contract is actually run on a day-to-day basis, and so has limited understanding of its mechanics.

Instead it is creating a process-heavy structure, when in reality the vast majority of requests are dealt with swiftly and without any requirement for complicated oversight.

The NTIA even released a presentation after the proposal was first published highlighting the fact that its role is mostly clerical, but again the working group has failed to adequately account for this reality.

In response to the December 1 draft, other suggestions have emerged. Are all the options and proposals being adequately considered in a manner that is fair and transparent?

This question comes as the working group appears to have reacted defensively to alternative suggestions by the broader internet community, rather than consider the fact that they may represent a more effective approach.

How does the proposal avoid re-creating existing concerns in a new form or creating new concerns? If the concern is the accountability of the existing system, does creating new committees and structures simply create a new set of accountability questions?

This also highlights a concern that El Reg has repeatedly highlighted: that the inclusion of more people and more committees will serve only to increase the level of politics without improving actual accountability.

The working group's biggest mistakes has been to largely recreate itself in the role of the US government but with more processes and less experience or knowledge.

Accountability

Strickling briefly addressed the related issue of necessary improvements in ICANN's accountability, which are being worked on by a second working group.

He appeared to endorse a proposal to create a mechanism that would enable the internet community to kick off Board members if they failed to act properly: a mechanism that the internet community has repeatedly tried and failed to introduce over the past decade.

He also highlighted the need to "improve current accountability tools like the reviews called for by the Affirmation of Commitments". Again the message appears to be that creating new processes or structures is likely to create more problems rather than fix existing ones.

Other issues

Strickling also tackled two related issues around the IANA transition. He noted that since the US Congress specifically passed a measure that prevents the NTIA from spending funds on the transition that he and his department will not do so. However, he makes it plain that US government officials will continue to monitor the process and provide informal feedback.

He also stressed again that the September deadline is not set in stone and that the Department of Commerce is able to extend its current contract for up to four years: a message that we take to read that ICANN staff and Board should not attempt to avoid introducing accountability changes by arguing that there is not sufficient time before the transition.

"September 2015 has been a target date because that is when the base period of our contract with ICANN expires," Strickling noted.

"But this should not be seen as a deadline. If the community needs more time, we have the ability to extend the IANA functions contract for up to four years. It is up to the community to determine a timeline that works best for stakeholders as they develop a proposal that meets NTIA’s conditions, but also works."

Overall, Strickling comments fit in with both our criticism of the current plan and much of what the broader internet community has said. It also dovetails with a proposal that we have developed for how to resolve the names aspect of the IANA contract: namely, adding periodic review of it into the existing accountability agreement that ICANN shares with the US government rather than developing new and untested structures. ®

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