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Thoughts About U.S. Government's Decision on IANA Transition

Byron Holland

Last week the government of the United States made an announcement that sent shockwaves through the Internet governance world. The National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the Department of Commerce, publicly stated that it will not be renewing its contract with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) past its September 2015 expiry date.

The importance of this announcement cannot be underestimated.

The Internet is largely a product of U.S. interests, including the Department of Defense and the Department of Commerce. As a result, key Internet technical infrastructure has been operating under contract administered by the NTIA. Core to these operations are the functions IANA plays — the coordination of the DNS Root and Internet Protocol addressing. As you can imagine, among the entities that comprise the Internet governance ecosystem and certain states around the world, there are many that are opposed to U.S. government interests so close to the Internet's operations.

Interestingly this announcement, however big it is, should not be seen as entirely unexpected.

I've blogged before about the current governance model in place to manage the Internet. Commonly called the multi-stakeholder model, it is a bottom-up, consensus-based model that includes an organic mix of public and private entities at the regional, national and international levels — those entities that have a stake in the success of the Internet. This complex network of inter-related and inter-connected bodies that comprise the Internet governance world is analogous to a natural ecosystem. And like a natural ecosystem, the current governance structures and processes grew organically, beginning in the 1960s when the Internet was entirely under the control of the United States government.

Like a natural ecosystem, the organisms that comprise the greater governance entity exist in a delicate balance. As it is continuously evolving, the entities involved in the governance of the Internet also need to evolve. The fact is many organizations have ceased to exist or were reorganized as a result of the changing needs of the Internet ecosystem. Who remembers the International Network Working Group or the Federal Networking Council?

I should also note that it has always been the intent of the government to transfer management of these functions to ICANN. Central to this commitment was the transitioning of the so-called 'IANA functions'.

I believe we are witnessing another evolutionary step in the development of the Internet with this announcement. Momentum to reform the current Internet governance structures and systems has been gaining steam for a number of years. However, much of the current discourse on Internet governance focuses on the linkage between ICANN, IANA and the U.S. government. The U.S. government backing away from that accountability role removes a considerable barrier in those discussions.

We are, however, left with an accountability vacuum. Whether or not you agreed with the role of the U.S. government, the fact is they did play an important — if only very limited in recent years — role in ensuring IANA was doing the work it was tasked with. With the removal of the U.S. government as that accountability body, mechanisms or structures will likely need to be put in place in order to assume that role. That said, I'm confident any number of solutions will be proposed over the coming months, and that we are on the cusp of settling a number of the outstanding issues that have dogged the Internet governance world for years.

By Byron Holland, President and CEO of CIRA
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Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance
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