Q&A: Internationalising the Internet’s IANA function

by Maria on March 17, 2014

A journalist friend just emailed me some questions about Friday’s announcement by the US Dept. of Commerce NTIA that it will work towards internationalising the oversight of some of what ICANN does. The IANA function has long been a source of international grumbling, particularly amongst middle income countries that don’t feel they have any influence over a service the global Internet depends on. Some of this grumbling is purely opportunistic, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, but the bulk of it is of long standing. Ahead of an international meeting convened by Brazil next month to work on principles for Internet governance, the NTIA has made its play to get back in control of the process and the story. It’s asked ICANN to bring people together to come up with a transition plan to internationalise IANA.

If this hadn’t been a weekend when Russia annexed a province of a neighbouring country, the premise of the TV series ‘Lost’ became a serious contender for explaining current events in, or perhaps far away from, the Indian Ocean, and my husband’s best man made headlines saying he is ashamed of toeing the Ministry of Defence’s line that UK military kit in Afghanistan was a-ok, I expect the news that the United States is to renounce its exclusive hold on part of the Internet would have been front page news.

But it hasn’t been all that much in the news, and I am too jammed to blog anything comprehensive about the topic, so here are some hastily typed responses to the questions I was asked:

NB Questions are so much easier to stimulate thoughts than sitting with the blank page, but they do direct matters in certain directions. I probably sound more sanguine than I am about what kind of transition plan ICANN might come up with. The NTIA basically told ICANN to consult DNS operators and ‘others’, which does not leave me full of confidence for how the civil society organisations I represent will be included, or indeed the US business interests who currently dominate matters.

Will the “Internet community” will be able to come up with a plan acceptable to commercial interests?

The key to success is for commercial interests to remember that they, too are part of the ‘Internet community’, and to start acting like it. That means actively participating in all the discussions, even if that means holding their nose about who they’re talking to, and taking responsibility for decisions they are part of. It also means not running back to Capitol Hill every time they don’t get exactly what they want. A lot of the reason behind international disquiet about how the Internet is run is that a small group of Washington business lobbyists have an inappropriate amount of influence over how the global Internet is run. That has done a lot more damage over time than the Snowden revelations, because it undermines the whole reason for other interests and countries to take part in the US-created multi-stakeholder model of ICANN.

The one concern I share with US commercial interests is their fear that an internationalised IANA will somehow un-tether ICANN from direct accountability. That is a real worry and one we all need to work on.There are a lot of proposals on how to achieve accountability, but it is very much a work in progress.

But let’s keep in mind that for most of the planet, the ability to call ICANN executives in front of a Congressional committee does not mean transparency! Most of us will never be consulted in such a process because we are not Americans, and we don’t get a vote. That is why US commercial interests need to look more broadly than their own lobbying efforts as channels of accountability, and get themselves into the mindset of people from around the rest of the planet. How confident do you think a global German telecoms operator, or an Indian software multinational, or a South Asian human rights NGO can be that their concerns will be treated seriously in Washington? Remember, we, too, have a big stake in how the Internet is run, and it can be quite frightening to think it is all down to a friendly US Congress person or Senator being sufficiently informed and caffeinated to ask the right questions at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Do you think governments will stand by while control of the Internet is decided by the “Internet community”?

That is not what’s happening. Specific and far-reaching changes in control of the Internet are being spearheaded by governments – the NTIA, Brazil, the European Commission – in response to some quite broad concerns voiced by the technical community six months ago. (the Montevideo statement) Governments are most definitely in the driving seat now. That’s why we are suddenly moving so fast.

But governments need to remember that they, too, are part of the Internet community! The headline news in the past couple of years about how the Internet is governed has been that governments are rightly taking a more prominent and responsible role in it. However, governments will destroy the innovation and generativity of the Internet if they tear up the rule book for ‘multi-stakeholderism’, the idea that everyone has a place at the table.

Do you think ICANN itself will be in charge of this effort?

ICANN has been very smart and politically courageous. The gap between ICANN’s global responsibilities and its purely US-national legal accountability has been a painful one for a very long time. It was politically unsustainable. ICANN, led by Fadi Chehade, spotted an immediate opportunity late last summer to finally progress on a historic problem, and was both smart enough and brave enough to act on it. He has taken a lot of flak for that, but I believe he is on the right side of history. A lot of us in the immediate ICANN-community might have liked more consultation in advance and as we move along, but international politics moves fast, and we have to realise there is more at stake than our egos. I expect to see ICANN’s leadership remain at the fore of political developments, working closely with the key governments.

Let’s not forget that ICANN was always intended to transition to a more international oversight model, right from the process that created the MoU in 1999. And the 2009 Affirmation of Commitments was originally designed to allow it to be endorsed by other governments, not just the US. So internationalisation of responsibility and accountability have been in ICANN’s DNA from the start.

Any predictions/concerns about GAC’s role in this and its apparent rise in influence?
(The GAC is the Governmental Advisory Committee to the ICANN Board.)

The GAC has a long way to go in matching its belief in its supremacy over other stakeholders with an ability to take part in the policy-making process in real time. ICANN makes policy all year round, not just at our face to face meetings, and the Internet moves too fast to be run by overworked officials who don’t have time to check their email. As the role of governments increases, GAC member countries need to put their money where their claims of legitimacy are, by devoting realtime and senior level staff to engage with the policy process as it happens. While I personally would dislike such a model, the notion of a functional and engaged GAC as a ‘primus inter pares’ isn’t unthinkable.

Do you have any general comments on this development you wish to share, especially with your background at ICANN?
The truth is the Internet has long enjoyed the backstop of a single government, the USG. Americans seem strangely blind to that, almost like it doesn’t count if it’s your own government. Well that’s not how it feels for the rest of the world. We need to cut through the fear-mongering about Russia and China and recognise that the vast majority of ‘middle of the road’ countries – democracies and America’s allies – believe it is time to move on. Countries like Brazil, India, most of Europe and Latin America are the US’s friends and have been urging this change.

In a narrow respect, the Internet is government-run – it’s just that the government in question is the American federal one. US commercial interests have been very comfortable with that because it gives them a special status. Much of the fear, uncertainty and doubt I’ve heard so far has been from Beltway lobbyists worried about losing their privileged access in a more open regime. I would like to see them engaging with the world outside of Washington and outside of the US, where the next two billion Internet users and most of our opportunities for economic growth are coming from. I really applaud the NTIA’s far-sighted stance. They are doing what a government should do, and engaging with their international peers to envisage the next generation of leadership and innovation on the Internet, not the previous one.



Anarcissie 03.17.14 at 3:43 pm

Well, there is also the possibility of a more closed regime.


Maria 03.17.14 at 3:56 pm

Indeed there is, Anarcissie. These are the ‘interesting times’ we’re never sure we want to live in.


js. 03.17.14 at 8:00 pm

This is very helpful; thanks.


The Raven 03.17.14 at 8:08 pm

What about the UN? Granted UN governance is a mess, still, some of the UN service organizations do a good job, and it’s an existing international framework.


roy belmont 03.18.14 at 1:29 am

“The key to success is for commercial interests to remember that they, too are part of the ‘Internet community’”
It would help quite a bit if they remembered, or even realized to begin with, that they’re part of the ‘human community’, as well.


Straightwood 03.18.14 at 2:42 am

The biggest news was Tim Berners-Lee’s declaration that a Magna Carta of privacy rights for Internet users was needed. This is the first time that a prominent figure has called for nation states to recognize the Internet as a unified political domain. It will not be the last.


JG 03.18.14 at 2:19 pm

I don’t know if Tim Berners-Lee reads this, but it might help if he or someone of his stature (Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn) would mobilize the remaining Internet founding family behind the initiative. Having been there from the beginning, I can attest that internationalization of both services and authority was absolutely the vision from the get go.



Anarcissie 03.18.14 at 3:54 pm

So, what interest would a government, or other state institution, have in protecting the rights of ordinary persons, or, indeed, acknowledging that they have any rights in the first place?

It seems to me that the major reasons for the relative freedom of the Internet were first, the inattention of the authorities, and second, some residue or memory of the rights of American citizens as listed in the Constitution, and associated social habits and practices, which — the Internet being largely an American development at first — had an important effect on its form. (When I first got on the Internet in the mid-1980s, it was basically a random subversion of a project of the military-academic complex, so besides the freedom of rights there was also the freedom of a certain light criminality.)

Even in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the screws are being turned to cure this freedom, and I can imagine what the internationalization of services and authority will mean, given that by ‘the nation’ we actually mean ‘the state’. The fact that governments have supposedly been overthrown because of postings on Facebook will not have escaped the notice of certain important parties.


The Raven 03.18.14 at 3:59 pm

Anarcissie@8: “what interest would a government, or other state institution, have in protecting the rights of ordinary persons, or, indeed, acknowledging that they have any rights in the first place?”

It’s their job and many participants still take it seriously. There is always corruption but, still, there are many people in positions of authority who do believe in the rights of citizens.


Straightwood 03.18.14 at 5:31 pm


The war is definitely on between nation states and the people of the Internet, but the people will win, because free, instant global communication is an unstoppable homogenizing force. After many years of bitter future struggle, there will be one universal, enforceable charter of human rights, including the right to privacy.

Like Magna Carta, the early declarations of universal rights on the Internet will deliver little practical benefit to ordinary people. But once these ideas are unleashed, they cannot be defeated. The nation states cannot persist in the squabbles that sustain their identities while effectively controlling a global Interent society.

We are are privileged to be present at the historical moment when the people of the world awaken to the realization that the Internet is a political entity.


Roy 03.18.14 at 7:29 pm

This excessive confidence that the people will win is why I have no desire to be considered a socialist anymore. Given that almost none of us has any say in what the state does, Socialism has become Statism, the State does not care about Society, it cares only about perpetuating itself in its current form.

At this point I realize I am supposed to call for some new organization of the State that will be a part of Society, but since I can’t imagine how that would work anymore, I feel considerable unhappiness at this turn of events. My personal experience of modern states is very narrow, the US, Canada, my mother’s Sweden, the Mubarak form of Nasserite Egypt, and the PRC. Honestly if I consider the situation of the residents, as opposed to those outside, of each of these states the US is pretty much the best at this exact moment. As to the UN, it is almost like a parody version of what the Nasserite state would look like if it had no ability to direct force independently, and no needto provide even an Egyptian level of public welfare.


The Temporary Name 03.18.14 at 7:46 pm

of each of these states the US is pretty much the best at this exact moment.

What on earth could “best” mean?


Straightwood 03.18.14 at 8:49 pm

Snowden spoke via satellite link at a TED talk today:

“Our basic freedoms are not a partisan issue,” Snowden said. ‘It is up to us to protect them; it is up to us to preserve the open Internet.”

Snowden endorsed the campaign by Berners-Lee for a global Magna Carta laying out values and rights on the Internet.

“A Magna Carta for the Internet is exactly what we need,” Snowden said.


Anarcissie 03.19.14 at 3:43 am

So what’s the plan? The Magna Carta and the American Bill of Rights didn’t come about because of people trusting the authorities to do their job.


James Wimberley 03.19.14 at 12:30 pm

I suggested in a blog post that one legal model worth looking at is humanitarian law. You have the Geneva Conventions setting out the rules, classic inter-state treaties; and a respected and independent non-governmental implementing agency, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is basically a private Swiss foundation. The cases are not the same: Internet governance needs far fewer rules and a lot more implementation, there are more stakeholders, and it’s far more technical and fast-changing. The advantage of the model is that it’s proved extraordinarily robust under extreme pressures for a century. Better that than the ITU, which would hand the Internet over to the telcos – one stakeholder among many.

Plea to Maria: can you expand on the relationship between ICANN, the IETF and the 3WC? There’s a lot more to Internet governance than domain names.


Straightwood 03.19.14 at 12:54 pm


The plan is to identify trusted individuals and assemble them into trusted global organizations that codify and enforce the rights of citizens of the Internet. The IETF and other Internet regulatory bodies are a precursors to such organizations. We must solve the problem of synthesizing institutional trust. If this can be achieved through the greater transparency and responsiveness of Internet communication, the way to global government lies open, and the eclipse of nation states can begin.


Anarcissie 03.19.14 at 2:31 pm

@16 — Who is going to do this identifying and assembling?


Straightwood 03.19.14 at 2:46 pm


We have already witnessed the self-identification and assembly of trusted entities. Incredibly, the only qualification for membership in the IETF is showing up and participating in its activities. Yet the IETF has successfully generated the bulk of the Internet’s structure and protocols. The extension of this model into the political domain is the next hurdle for the evolution of Internet-based global governance.


Emily Taylor 03.19.14 at 2:53 pm

Excellent analysis, as usual, Maria. I particularly liked what you said about fears that “oversight by all” might be translated in practice to “oversight by none”, the lack of global participation in ICANN, and the need for improvements with the GAC.

I’m interested in what you think about the timing of this statement, and the veto on an intergovernmental solution? Here, http://www.emilytaylor.eu/us-government-statement-icann-new-dawn-spoiler/, I argue that neither are an accident in the build up to Net Mundial in Brazil next month, and that in content (not style) the statement is quite similar to the US Government statement back in 2005.


Paul Davis 03.19.14 at 5:50 pm

@18: confusing technical specifications and operational planning with the Magna Carta and/or a constitution is, alas, a classic geek mistake. IETF has done astounding, almost unbelievably well managing the technical side of the internet. Rights and laws are an entirely different matter, and I think it is nothing but pious optimism to claim or believe that the IETF process can work for this too.


Straightwood 03.19.14 at 5:58 pm


If, in 1950, one had described the process by which the IETF created the Internet infrastructure, would this not have been declared a utopian fantasy? The pessimism directed at the possibility of the evolution of political structures on the Internet neglects the radical novelty of Internet society. Snowden and Assange don’t speak just for Americans or Australians; they speak for the people of the Internet, and they are just the beginning of a new political generation loyal to all of mankind, not just to inhabitants of one patch of ground.


The Temporary Name 03.19.14 at 7:03 pm

If, in 1950, one had described the process by which the IETF created the Internet infrastructure, would this not have been declared a utopian fantasy?

Um, no?


Anarcissie 03.19.14 at 7:07 pm

I don’t think anyone has answered my question believably. We’ve had people-doing-their-job, which has such a grotesquely bad history I’m surprised it was mentioned. Collections of nation-states were offered, like the UN, which are suddenly somehow going to depart from state-like behavior and become mystically benevolent and libertarian. And then there’s just folks, who are just going to get together somehow. That is hard to argue against.

It looks to me like we’re going to have to rely on crime — hackerdom — to keep any sort of freedom on the Net.


Straightwood 03.19.14 at 7:45 pm


Slavery was considered an unshakeable and permanent institution of the ancient world. It persisted across millenia. The dominance of the Church in Medieval times was considered an unquestioned fact, and it persisted for centuries. The rule of nation-states is today viewed as an unalterable fact, but their belligerence and restriction of liberties is increasingly called into question by young people born with the means of easy and effortless communication on the Internet.

The nation states are headed for extinction. They may survive in name the way Astrology survives notionally, but their days of sovereignty will come to an end. Mankind has too much to gain from managing the Earth as a coherent community, and the Internet provides, for the first time, the means to do so.


Manta 03.19.14 at 9:22 pm

Thanks for the post, Maria: this seems to me an important and under-discussed matter.


Maria 03.21.14 at 2:42 am

Hi all, a quick thanks for the comments and placeholder that I clearly need to write some more about related issues. Which I will do!

James Wimberley, would you mind saying a bit more about what you’d like to hear about the various other ‘I*’ technical orgs?

Emily, I have to admit the timing caught me by surprise. I’d heard rumblings, but figured if it hadn’t happened by now, the USG wouldn’t say anything pre-Brazil. Good question on the attempt to circumscribe the process and players re. governments. Saying it isn’t going to make it happen, but it does mean everyone is now in the stance of reacting to the USG statement, which I assume was part of the intent, and a smart one.

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