Hey, uh ICANN. US govt here. You know we said we'd give you the keys to the 'net? Yeaahhh...
Yeeahhh, I'm thinking we might be changing our minds
The US government has admitted its plan to move control of the internet's naming and numbering functions to a California non-profit next month may not move forward.
In a letter [PDF] from the Department of Commerce (DoC) to ICANN sent August 31, the department's CFO gives the organization 30 days' notice that it may extend its current contract over the critical IANA functions by a year. In other words, Uncle Sam will continue to oversee ICANN's running of IANA for another 12 months.
That contract is due to terminate on September 30, and following a two-year process started by the US government and run by the internet community, ICANN is due to take over full control.
Such a move is opposed by some in Washington, including Senator Ted Cruz who this week launched a "countdown clock" and urged Congress to block the handover.
"Don't let Obama give away our freedoms!" the clock webpage bellows, claiming that the proposal would enable countries like Russia, China and Iran to censor online speech and block websites – claims that are, objectively, not true.
However, in recent weeks more rational arguments to delay the transition have emerged. A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal referenced the fact that the move would remove anti-trust protection from ICANN, and noted a number of recent decisions against ICANN that raised significant questions about its readiness to self-govern.
A further WSJ article this week raised doubts over ICANN suitability with respect to the unusual agreement it recently reached with Verisign over the extremely valuable dot-com contract – a deal that was almost certainly a quid pro quo for Verisign agreeing to let ICANN take control of changes to the internet's root zone.
The Heritage Foundation – a Republican think-tank – also recently reiterated its call for the contract to be extended by a year in order to road-test changes to ICANN's structure and processes that are intended to improve its accountability.
Under a deal struck between Congress and the Obama Administration last year, it would require Congress to pass legislation to prevent the transition from moving forward.
As such, the letter notes that "the Department intends to allow the IANA functions contract to expire as of October 1, 2016, barring any significant impediment."
In the heart of election season, it is not inconceivable that Congress will agree to that "significant impediment," but it won't happen if Ted Cruz – who remains widely disliked within Congress – is the only standard-bearer of the move to disrupt the transition.
Regardless, it is telling that the US government felt the need to hedge its bets, and that ICANN swiftly published an FAQ [PDF] on the letter. In it, it asks and answers its own question on what a "significant impediment" would be: "A significant impediment, for example, might be a legal or legislative obstacle that would prevent the expiration of the IANA functions contract."
Under the current IANA contract, the DoC is required to let ICANN know 30 days in advance if it wishes to extend the contract. The crunch will come on 15 September when the DoC would need to provide written notice that it does in fact intend to do so. ®