IANA Transition: a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

In March 2014, the US Government committed to ending its contract with ICANN to run the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), and also announced that it would hand over control to the “global multistakeholder community”. The conditions for this handover were that the changes must be developed by stakeholders across the globe, with broad community consensus. Further, it was indicated that any proposal must support and enhance the multistakeholder model; maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet Domain Name System (DNS);  meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services and maintain the openness of the Internet. Further, it must not replace the NTIA role with a solution that is government-led or by an inter-governmental organisation.

These conditions were met, ICANN’s Supporting Organisations (SO’s) and Advisory Committees (ACs) accepted transition proposals, and these proposals were then accepted by the ICANN Board as well, putting the transition in motion. But not quite. The “global multistakeholder community” still had to wait for approval from the NTIA and the US government, both of whom eventually approved the proposal. The latter’s approval was confirmed after considerable uncertainty due to Senator Ted Cruzs efforts to stop the transition, due to his belief that the transition was an exercise of the US government handing over control of the internet to foreign governments. Notwithstanding this, on 29th September, the US Senate passed a short term bill to keep the US Government funded till the end of the year, without a rider on the IANA transition. The next hurdle was a lawsuit filed in federal court in Texas by the attorney generals of four states to stop the handover of the IANA contract. As on the 30th of September, the court denied the Plaintiffs’ Application, thus allowing the transition to proceed.

What does this transition mean? What does it change? The transition, while a welcome step, leaves much to be desired in terms of tangible change, primarily because it fails to address the most important question, that of ICANN jurisdiction. It is important to have the Internet’s core Domain Name System (DNS) functioning free from the pressures and control of a single country or even a few countries; the transition does not ensure this, as the Post Transition IANA entity (PTI) will be under Californian jurisdiction, just like ICANN was pre-transition. The entire ICANN community has been witness to a single American political figure almost derailing its meticulous efforts simply because he could; and in many ways these events cemented the importance of having diversity in terms of legal jurisdiction of ICANN, the PTI and the root zone maintainer.

My colleague Pranesh Prakash has identified 11 reasons why the question of jurisdiction is important to consider during the IANA transition. Some of these issues depend on where ICANN, the PTI and the root zone maintainer are situated, some depend on the location of the office in question and still others depend on contracts that ICANN enters into. ICANN’s new bylaws state that it will be situated in California, the post transition IANA entities bylaws also make a Californian jurisdiction integral to its functioning. As an alternative, the Centre for Internet & Society has called for the “jurisdictional resilience” of ICANN, encompassing three crucial points: legal immunity for core technical operators of Internet functions (as opposed to policymaking venues) from legal sanctions or orders from the state in which they are legally situated, division of core Internet operators among multiple jurisdictions, and jurisdictional division of policymaking functions from technical implementation functions.

Transparency is also key to engaging meaningfully with ICANN. CIS has filed the most number of Documentary Information Disclosure Policy (DIDP) requests with ICANN, covering a range of subjects including its relationships with contracted parties, financial disclosure, revenue statements, and harassment policies. Asvatha Babu, an intern at CIS, analysed all responses to our requests and found that only 14% of our requests were answered fully. 40% of our requests had no relevant answers disclosed at all (these were mostly to do with complaints and contractual compliance). To illustrate the importance of engaging with ICANN transparency, CIS has focused on understanding ICANN’s sources of income since 2014. This is because we believe that conflict of interest can only be properly understood by following the money in a granular fashion. This information was not publicly available, and in fact, it seemed like ICANN didnt know where it got its money from, either. It is only through the DIDP process that we were able to get ICANN to disclose sources of income, and figures along with those sources for a single financial year.

ICANN prides itself on being transparent and accountable, but in reality it is not. The most often used exception to avoid answering DIDP requests has been “Confidential business information and/or internal policies and procedures”, which in itself is a testament to ICANN’s opacity. Another condition for non-disclosure allows ICANN to reject answering “Information requests: (i) which are not reasonable; (ii) which are excessive or overly burdensome; (iii) complying with which is not feasible; or (iv) are made with an abusive or vexatious purpose or by a vexatious or querulous individual.”. These exemptions are not only vague, they are also extremely subjective: again, demonstrative of the need for enhanced accountability and transparency within ICANN. Key issues have not been addressed even at the time that the transition is formally underway. The grounds for denying DIDP requests are still vague and wide, effectively giving ICANN the discretion to decline answering difficult questions, which is unacceptable from an entity that is at the center of the multi-billion dollar domain name industry.

ICANN’s jurisdictional resilience and enhanced accountability are particularly vital for countries in Asia. Its policies, processes and functioning have historically been skewed towards western and industry interests, and ICANN can neither be truly global nor multistakeholder till such countries can engage meaningfully with it in a transparent fashion. The IANA transition is, of course, largely political, and may symbolise a transition to the global multistakeholder community, but in reality, it changes very little, if anything.

This feature was written exclusively for Digital Asia Hub. For permission to republish or for interviews with the author please contact Dev Lewis.

Vidushi Marda
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