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NTIA Rejects ICANN Bid for IANA Function on Eve of Costa Rica Meeting

On March 10, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the division of the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) that oversees operation of the Internet Assigned Number Authority (IANA) published two announcements. The timing of these announcements, nothing short of a bombshell on the eve of ICANN’s meeting in Costa Rica, can only be seen intentional and intent on sending a clear message to ICANN – clean up your act.

In the most simplistic description, no address (URL) can be programmed into the Internet’s domain name system (DNS) unless it first enters the network through IANA’s authoritative root server. That server is controlled by the United States. While the general operation of the Internet’s DNS is currently coordinated through a separate agreement between the DOC and ICANN, known as the Affirmation of Commitments, without IANA’s consent, ICANN cannot program a new address, including a new gTLD, into the Internet. The IANA agreement is periodically renewed though the issuance of a request for proposal (RFP). The last RFP was issued on November 10, 2011. Since the current IANA agreement with ICANN expires on March 31, 2012, deliberation of the IANA RFP was being carefully watched by the entire Internet community, particularly in light of concerns expressed by NTIA and others over ICANN’s present operations and the controversy surrounding ICANN’s proposal to expand the Domain Name System (DNS) through the addition of hundreds, or even thousands, of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) to compete with the existing 22 gTLDs (.com, .org, .net, etc.).

One notice seemed innocuous. NTIA announced it had reached agreement with ICANN to continue performing the IANA functions until September 30, 2012. But this was not coupled with an extension of the period for consideration of the RFP but rather by a cancellation of the RFP. That’s the bombshell. We know that ICANN submitted a response to the RFP. We have no idea if any other organization did so since NTIA has not released that information. Nonetheless, the notice of cancellation speaks volumes on how serious the problems are with ICANN and its continued failre to respond to the clear demands of the stakeholders it purports to represent.

In its notice of cancellation, the NITA stated, “we are cancelling this RFP because we received no proposals that met the requirements requested by the global community.” More on point, NITA reiterated key issues that needed to be addressed in any submitted RFP in public notices it issued in February and June 2011. Presumably, ICANN’s submission failed to do so. Those concerns were “structural separation of policymaking from implementation, a robust companywide conflict of interest policy, provisions reflecting heightened respect for local country laws, and a series of consultation and reporting requirements to increase transparency and accountability to the international community.” On all of these concerns, ICANN has been criticized by virtually every stakeholder community.

In particular, ICANN’s loose conflict of interest policy has received significant criticism.

It has become quite common for ex-ICANN employees and Directors to join companies that make their livings on selling domain names or providing consulting to domain name owners. That controversy came into particular focus when former ICANN Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush left the Board and joined Top Level Domain Holdings (TLDH) just six weeks after he orchestrated the Board vote to open the DNS to virtually unlimited gTLDs.

According to press reports, TLDH is applying to ICANN for dozens of new gTLDs in the coming year. Thrush’s compensation deal has been described as worth millions and includes options to buy 15 million TLDH shares. The value of those shares will depend on ability of TLDH to sign registry services to sell domain names TLDH wins through the ICANN process.

NTIA’s cancellation is even more telling because ICANN changed its conflict of interest policy subsequent to Thrush’s departure and the issuance of the RFP. While NTIA has not addressed any particular part of ICANN’s submission that was insufficient, many continue to believe the changes make to ICANN’s conflict of interest policy remain inadequate. Does the NTIA agree?

Furthermore, ICANN’s failure to adhere to a policy of transparency and accountability raises serious questions. With sixteen directors accountable through no independent oversight, their powers are unrestrained and, as recent decisions illustrate, ignore what the stakeholders want or, more importantly, need.

It will be interesting to see if the ICANN leadership adjusts its agenda in Costa Rica to address these critical concerns rather than conduct business as usual – seemingly endless debate in committees without meaningful resolution. Need proof? For years, ICANN committees have been debating proposals from the law enforcement community. None have been adopted.

Doug Wood, We Expert

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