Two weeks ago, the US government announced it would transition its role in the IANA functions to the global Internet community. It tasked ICANN with the job of arriving at a transition plan and noted that the current contract runs out in 18 months' time, 30 September 2015.
This week, ICANN started that process at its meeting in Singapore. And on the ground were the two key US government officials behind the decision — Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Strickling and NTIA Associate Administrator Fiona Alexander — to explain exactly what it meant, what the process would be, and answer questions from the Internet community.
This is what they had to say.
The summary below covers only what Strickling and Alexander said in person at five different sessions during the week of the conference:
Full details and resources for each session are provided at the end.
Except for the pre-conference event (where Strickling gave a keynote speech and Alexander was on a panel), each session saw Strickling give a rundown of the decision to transition IANA in which he highlighted the same key messages. He then took questions from the floor.
This summary breaks down the approximately three-and-a-half hours of information and discussion into three parts:
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The US government's role in IANA is purely clerical
Both Strickling and Alexander repeatedly used the word "clerical" to describe the role that the US government plays in the IANA contract.
"Our role today is fairly clerical," said Strickling. Alexander reiterated the message: "What's on the table is the US government's role. That role is clerically administering the contract."
In a later session: "There is a template that has been agreed. We just verify that the process has been followed… our role is just clerical." And later still: "Our actual role is quite administrative or clerical in the sense that root zone change requests come through us, we look at them, verify them and pass them on to Verisign who actually implements and updates and maintains the root zone."
The word was even used to refer to the impact that the transition will have on the agreement the US government has with Verisign over making the actual changes to the root zone. If the community decides on a transition process, the change in that contract should be merely "clerical", Strickling told government representatives.
A definition of 'clerical' by the Oxford English Dictionary: "Concerned with or relating to work in an office, especially routine documentation and administrative tasks."
Other terms used to describe the US government's role included "narrow scope", "symbolic" and "quite limited".
There are four key principles – and that's it
Strickling reiterated the four "principles" that accompanied the announcement of the transition in each session, noting every time that they were "not controversial" and that he had "heard no disagreement" with them.
The four were referred to as the "principles", "conditions" even "corners" of the transition process. Strickling repeatedly stressed that they are the only constraints on the process and the only items by which the transition will be judged and approved (except one significant exception — see the next point).
Those principles are:
Asked repeatedly for further details, constraints, pre-conditions, preferences or any other details that would define the process, Strickling insisted there were none.
Examples of quotes: "I don't wish to pre-judge anything"; "I don't have a sketch for how this looks and even if I did, it wouldn't be fair to submit as more than one stakeholder's view"; "you can't have anything at the front end saying you can't consider this or you can't go that direction — particularly from us as the final arbiter — that would not be true to the spirit of the multistakeholder process"; "the criteria communicated are the only criteria".
Governments are only one stakeholder and cannot be in charge
The one explicit constraint included in the transition announcement was that "NTIA will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution".
In the announcement, this was preceded with the explanation that the US Congress had passed resolutions that made it clear that the "multistakeholder model" was the only model that was acceptable for Internet governance issues (those resolutions were largely in response to the ITU-run World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December 2012).
With respect to the "no government-led solution" sentence, Strickling repeatedly stressed the same point: that it may have been misinterpreted to say that governments had no role to play in a future IANA contract whereas the position of the US government was that governments were just one stakeholder in the multistakeholder model and should not be given a pre-eminent position.
He told the pre-conference on Internet governance: "One issue is crystal clear — we will not acceptable a proposal where a government-led or inter-governmental organization is put into the role we play."
Later: "It is not the case that governments should not play any role. I fully expect and welcome the role of governments." Also: "We're not saying governments don't play a role — clearly they need to be part of a discussion — but we don't want to replace a single government solution with a multi-government solution." Later still, and directly to government representatives: "Some of you may not like this but… we are saying very clearly that any solution should not be government led."
The answer to the transition lies in IANA's 'customers'
The phrase "customers" appears in the official announcement and was used repeatedly to describe not only who the IANA functions were aimed at but also how transition solutions should be framed.
The different aspects of the IANA contract (protocols, names and numbers) were identified as having a different set of "customers" each.
"There are three primary functions and three different customers," explained Alexander. She later noted that the transition was a process of evolution and highlighted that the US government is "not the customers of those services".
Strickling argued that future discussions should "keep a focus on customers" and when asked about a specific possible change, replied: "It's a question that I again hope that the customers of IANA functions on the naming side are should have a lot of input into."
When asked about how the process should go move ahead, Strickling was careful not to "pre-judge" but noted that he felt it may be useful for there to be very clear explanations for what how the different aspects of the IANA functions actually work and that their "customers" may be in the best position to explain that.
US domestic politics are a factor
Strickling was characteristically blunt in his assessment of the political situation in Washington DC. Noting that there were already two Congressional hearings on the issue planned for next week, he warned that United States politics would play an important role in the IANA transition.
"We are already starting to see other issues emerge out of all this — people need to be understanding of all that," he told the pre-conference meeting. "Not that they should be modifying their viewpoints, but already people are suggesting that the US is abandoning the Internet or this decision will inevitability lead to a loss of freedom of expression on Internet."
He outlined the impact on his own department: "We are being pushed by some political elements to keep emphasizing how conditional our offer was — of the transition — that conditions have to be satisfied."
In several different sessions, he noted that there were two key audiences to the Internet community's actions: developing countries and Washington policymakers. "The community has to step up to reassure policymakers in Washington, or those that simply want to comment to win political points, that you have a sense of responsibility and will ensure very important values such as free expression."
Free expression was identified repeatedly as a touchstone in Washington politics: "I'm extremely puzzled and troubled by the idea that's emerged that somehow this evolution is going to threaten free expression on the internet. I think they are trying to score political points. But it's an issue that certainly resonates with people in the United States when they hear these statements being made. They take it personally and they view that as a threat. And so it's something we need to nip in the bud because it's wrong and because it'll cause constant friction."
"Don't let this become a political football," he urged, noting that the community can help by arriving at a "well thought through plan". He also urged that "this community come together quickly and be able to approach the goal of reaching consensus as quickly as possible".
Warning that the "chaotic" multistakeholder model will come under scrutiny, Strickling repeatedly warned that the "world is watching". He added: "It's important for the community to act with a real sense of purpose — engaged with this process and absolutely dedicated to arriving at a consensus outcome in a responsible, realistic and hopefully creative way. We can't let extraneous issues get in the way. There is too much at stake."
The bigger picture is developing countries and the multistakeholder process
Repeatedly playing down the importance of the US government's role over IANA (see its 'clerical' role above), Strickling repeatedly emphasized the more important Internet governance issues regarded developing nations and the multistakeholder model.
"My greatest concern is that by taking this action [announcing the IANA transition] it would suck all the oxygen out of the longer discussion — how to engage the developing world and build the multistakeholder model," he said, arguing that this should be the topic of the upcoming NetMundial conference in Brazil.
His "deepest hope" is that the IANA announcement will serve as a "booster shot" to these other issues. The needs of developing countries was "reflected in Dubai" (at the WCIT conference): "They have a series of unmet needs and are looking for help and need a way to get that help."
Later: "The developing world is still not certain that the multistakeholder model will meet their needs. We've been talking about the benefits and value of this for years and years. Now's the chance [to prove it]."
ICANN accountability is something for the community to figure out
While arguing that the US government's role in IANA was purely clerical, Strickling noted repeatedly that there was a "symbolism" and "comfort" for some in the US government sitting "in the middle" of changes to the root zone. He also noted that this was also a cause of "irritation" for many others.
But asked frequently how the transition of IANA impacted the US government's ability to keep ICANN in check, he persistently pushed the issue back to the community. "In no way is the US government handing the keys to ICANN and walking away from it. We're asking community to step up and say what is it that you want to have: how do you replace the sense of confidence that somehow we are sitting in the middle? This is an important discussion for this community to have."
Later: "Because people see the US contract as providing an overall sense of confidence about the system — which has also been a source of irritation — I fully expect community will want to start talking about that. Is there a vacuum of this larger question of accountability? We encourage that discussion — we haven't put it in play but we're not surprised community wants to talk about that and think that's good."
The "Affirmation of Commitments" (AoC) between the US government and ICANN remains untouched, Strickling noted many times. "We haven't done anything to say the AoC need to be changed or modified — it remains in place throughout this process."
But that "doesn't mean we can't talk about it — I expect [the IANA conversation] will segway into larger questions of accountability and transparency and how well the existing AoC operates." But to be "crystal clear", the IANA transition doesn't mean that the AoC is "out of touch or past due. It can work and should still work. If you want to improve — go to it."
The same questions repeatedly cropped up at the different sessions, eliciting the same broad responses…
What if the Internet community can't reach agreement by September 2015 (when the IANA contract is due to expire)?
The NTIA has the existing option of two, two-year extensions to the existing contract and is happy to use them if the community hasn't reached agreement. The priority will always be the "security and stability of the Internet".
Strickling repeatedly stressed however that there needs to be movement and he sidestepped a question about the impact of possible political changes in the president elections of 2016.
Should there be a structural separation of ICANN and IANA?
Both US government representatives were at pains to avoid giving a view one way or another but did note that after community input in 2012, that the current IANA contract requires separation of policy and administration of the IANA contract.
Strickling did ask aloud whether the economic argument for a structural separation of ICANN and IANA existed — was the benefit from separation worth the inefficiency it would create? But he noted this was a debate for the community to have.
Concerns that ICANN will push its own IANA proposal
There were repeated questions over what the US government would accept (and not accept) as a transition plan, often laced with the fear that ICANN would push its own preferred model.
In every case, Strickling stressed that any solution would have to be done in as transparent a way as possible, with the full inclusion of all in the Internet community and that the US government would only accept a proposal that was a proper consensus document.
"Everybody has a stake in that from ICANN management down to every organization or person who is part of this ecosystem. And so I think it behooves everyone to make sure that that's happening every step of the way. And we won't hesitate to give our view that we don't see that happening."
It was the community's responsibility to make a lot of noise if it felt it wasn't be listened to, Strickling said, noting that the US government will "continue to monitor" the process.
The creation of a new organization
There were a number of questions about whether a new organization would need to be created in order to take over the current US government role. Strickling wouldn't be drawn on the issue (if that it is the consensus plan, then so be it), but he did note that he could easily foresee a doing-away with the role altogether and a "machine-to-machine" automated process being introduced instead, removing altogether the role the US government has played for more than a decade.
Whenever you are grilled on all sides of a topic for several hours, it hard not to let the occasional interesting aside creep in. These are the most interesting from four days of IANA transition discussions:
A perennial figure of fun for Democrats in the United States, former vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin is renowned for making fervent political statements based on the slimmest of information.
Strickling couldn't resist but point to a Facebook post by Palin as an example of the kind of misinformed domestic politics he faces back home.
"It's absolutely an emerging item in the political debate in Washington. I mean just go look — Sarah Palin has made a Facebook post on this. Now I'm sure Sarah Palin is very well acquainted with the IANA functions. And I'm sure that, you know, if she wants to show up at an ICANN meeting or at Net Mundial to participate I'm sure she would be welcomed.
"But she's expressing a viewpoint that is very troubling in terms of what we're trying to accomplish here. And it's all being done not because at the end of the day she cares one bit about the IANA functions or ICANN. I doubt that she could tell you what any of the letters in the acronym stand for. It's all being done for political gain in the domestic politics in the US."
Russia and Crimea
Asked about the controversy at the WCIT conference in December 2012, an effort by some nations — particularly Russia — to pull the Internet under the auspices of the United Nations, and noting that the US government's clearly stated position that IANA would not be given to an inter-governmental organization may not be popular, Strickling used a current diplomatic crisis to make his point.
"I can't say for certain that some nation won't attempt to bring it back… but there's one that, you know, has got some issues in Crimea right now and maybe people won't be too disposed to listen to them this time."
The ITU option
Having been pressed repeatedly over what the US government would or would not accept as a transition plan, and having refused repeatedly to be drawn into giving any opinion, he was finally asked if there was any plan that the community could provide as a consensus document that he would not accept.
"Yeah — if you throw in the towel and say 'let's give it to the ITU'."
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Sessions and resources
Friday, 21 March
ICANN & Global Internet Governance: The Road to São Paulo & Beyond
— Video: Roadmap for Ecosystem Evolution
— Video: Fiona Alexander (4hrs 20mins in, ends at 5hrs 46mins)
— Video: Larry Strickling (7hrs 31mins in, ends at 7hrs 51mins)
Tuesday, 25 March
— Audio: starts at 29mins 43 secs
Non Commercial Users Constituency (NCUC)
— Transcript: pages 48-76
Commercial Stakeholder Group (CSG)
— Audio: starts at 25mins 30 secs