Domain name deadline could lead to power struggle

With the joint project agreement (JPA) between the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the U.S. Department of Commerce set to expire at the end of this month, global Internet communities and stakeholders have mixed feelings about what they’d like to see happen next.

Under the JPA, both ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce manage the Domain Name System (DNS). Fiona Alexander, associate administrator from the Office of International Affairs, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce, explains the DNS is a “critical component of the Internet infrastructure that works like a telephone directory, allowing users to reach Web sites using easy-to-understand domain names … to retrieve information on the Internet.”

ICANN is a non-profit international corporation that’s responsible for maintaining the operational stability of the Internet, including the management of Internet Protocol (IP) address space location, generic (for instance, .com) and country code (like .ca) top-level DNS management. It’s structured as a private-public partnership with a Board of Directors that oversee the policy development process, which is governed by a bottom-up, consensus based process. This involves representation from various global Internet communities and stakeholders in the Internet Community.

ICANN was initially created out of an “effort to bring more coordination and sustainability to the management of the Internet,” Alexander explained. On November 25, 1998, ICANN entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Department of Commerce. The goal with the MOU was to transfer the management of the DNS from the U.S. government to the private sector. Under the MOU, a series of goals were set out for ICANN to meet, and once those goals were met, ICANN would become a fully independent corporation in the private sector.

Under the MOU, Alexander said the U.S. Department of Commerce did not have the power to exercise any oversight into the “traditional context of regulation,” and also said that the government was not involved in any internal governance, or day-to-day operations with ICANN. Instead, the role of the U.S. Department of Commerce was to ensure the Internet and its underlying infrastructure remained stable and secure at all times, by providing expertise and advice when necessary.

After several amendments that were made to the MOU several years later, ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce signed the JPA, which is now set to expire at the end of this month.

The Number Resource Organization (NRO), which is an organization that’s made up of the world’s five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), is one of the few organization’s that shows its support towards the expiration of the JPA between ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce. The NRO represents and carries out joint activities on behalf of the RIRs. The RIRs oversee the allocation and registration of Internet number resources, better known as IP addresses. The RIRs are organized by region and include: AfriNIC (African Network Information Centre), APNIC (Asia Pacific Network Information Centre), ARIN (American Registry for Internet Numbers), LACNIC (Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry) and RIPE NCC (Regional Internet Registry for Europe, Middle East and parts of Central Asia).

Adiel Akplogan, chairman of the NRO, said “We believe that the principles that have guided the management of the DNS until now will enable the growth and development of the Internet in the future too, and advise that U.S. Government involvement in ICANN is no longer necessary.”

John Curran, president and CEO of ARIN, says under the NRO, each RIR operates fairly autonomously. In that respect, he says that while ARIN’s a supporter of ICANN, it does not do a lot of work with the organization.

“We don’t expect to see any change regardless of what happens (with the JPA),” Curran said. “Some of the advantages of having a JPA with the U.S. Department of Commerce was to make sure ICANN was international in nature and was a multi-stakeholder approach. The NRO position on the JPA is that while the JPA was important in getting ICANN launched, it’s not necessarily needed, as long as the original guiding principles are still there.”

An organization that has a slightly differing opinion about what should happen to the JPA is the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), which is a non-profit corporation that manages the .ca registry in Canada.

Byron Holland, president and CEO at CIRA, says ICANN is the governing body that delegates the authority to operate various areas of the Internet to other organizations. ICANN allocates regional blocks of IP addresses to the five geographic registries, and from there, organizations like CIRA, sell domain names to registrars, such as Go Daddy. The Registrar is the organization that helps individuals or businesses, also known as registrants register and maintain domain names.

“As an organization, we agree that ICANN should be set from the oversight of the U.S. Department of Commerce at some point,” Holland said. “But we would argue that this is not that point and that some sort of short term arrangement should be agreed upon where the U.S. Department of Commerce still has some oversight.”

Holland fears that if the JPA between ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce expires, there will be a shift in the balance of power.

“It would put ICANN at some risk if the U.S. Department of Commerce is not there,” he said. “Organizations and people will attempt to rush in and change the balance of power and governance of the Internet. A change of power, to another government, for instance, could have a major impact.”

Tim Ruiz, the vice-president of corporate development and policy at Go Daddy, an Internet domain ICANN-accredited registrar, shares similar thoughts.

“We support ICANN and think it’s the right thing to do, but we don’t believe that there’s enough accountability today to be able to end the agreement entirely,” Ruiz said. “Other governments or interest groups could come in and begin to capture ICANN and its processes. If this happens and any regulation would come down to registrars and the registrants, we wouldn’t be able to request third party review of that regulation if we feel processes weren’t followed or it wasn’t fair.”

What Ruiz suggests is the creation of some sort of a review panel that’s made up of some private sector individuals.

“We don’t want other governments coming in and leading ICANN because it needs to stay as a private-led organization,” Ruiz added. “We’re waiting just like everyone else to see what the final outcome of the JPA will be.”

While Brad White, a spokesperson for ICANN could not provide further details around the future arrangement of the JPA, he did say both ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce are in “active discussions” about what will happen with the JPA.

“There are no definitive answers about what will happen yet,” he said. “An agreement will be made by the end of the month.”

Likewise, Bart Forbes, a spokesperson from the NTIA with the U.S. Department of Commerce said, “We’re discussing things now (with ICANN), and when appropriate, we’ll announce what will happen on our Web site.”

ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce have until the September 30, 2009 deadline to decide whether to extend the JPA, or end it. All of the associated organizations will learn the final outcome by this date.

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Maxine Cheung
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