Controlling Internet Infrastructure Part 1: The 'IANA Transition' and Why It Matters for the Future of the Internet
38 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2015
Date Written: July 27, 2015
On March 14, 2014, the United States government announced its intention to end its direct role in overseeing the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). The IANA transition, as it is called, is a moment of critical importance in the history of the global network and the relationship between network governance and government control. It is an extraordinarily complex undertaking, both technically and legally, and there is a great deal at stake — but only a small handful of people understand the full scope of the problems involved and can participate intelligently in the public discussion about what entity or system should replace the U.S. government’s role in DNS oversight. It is thus an unfortunate combination of circumstances for informed decision-making and public discussion. This paper seeks to fill at least a part of that gap.
The current IANA transition is the logical culmination of the sequence initiated in the 1998-’99 transition, and it presents a significant opportunity for the United States and for the global community of Internet users. Over time, the justifications for a special role for the U.S. government in managing the evolution of the Internet and its governance systems have considerably weakened, as a consequence of both the Internet’s vastly expanding global reach and of questions about the U.S. government’s ability to claim any kind of neutral “stewardship” role for itself with respect to Internet affairs.
The IANA transition also has important symbolic significance: it is a formal recognition by the United States that the Internet, which the United States government helped usher into existence 30 years ago, is now truly a global public trust. The Internet’s core infrastructure, rather than being the special purview of any one country’s exclusive jurisdiction, needs to evolve in ways that benefit all users, world-wide. And a strong, consensus-based, non-governmental, multi-stakeholder institution at the policy-making center of the DNS is likely to be the best way to ensure that the Internet infrastructure remains free from undue governmental influence.
Yet the risks the transition poses are also high. The DNS is, by design, essentially invisible to the vast majority of Internet users, but if it were to break down, or fragment into multiple competing systems, the impact on Internet use around the world would be substantial. Furthermore, in the wrong hands control over the DNS can be leveraged into control over a much broader universe of Internet activity and communication than that encompassed by the DNS alone. Freed from U.S. government oversight, what is to prevent ICANN from inserting itself into global law-enforcement or governance role far removed from its core commitment to insuring that the DNS runs smoothly and efficiently?
The stakes are high, for everyone who uses the Internet and everyone who is concerned with its future development as a global communications platform. Designing a transition plan that achieves the goal of relinquishing the U.S. government’s oversight over the DNS while eliminating (or at least minimizing) the risks will be a difficult task, one that will require considerably more public attention and debate than it has received up to now. This paper, by explaining the nature of the challenges and the opportunities presented by the transition, lays some of the foundation for that debate, as well as for subsequent papers in this series, in which we will address in greater detail the substance of specific transition proposals now under development, along with our recommendations concerning implementation of what we believe to be the key components of a successful transition process.
Keywords: Internet governance, ICANN, IANA transition, Internet infrastructure, Internet law
JEL Classification: K10, K33, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation