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Can ICANN Manage the DNS Root Zone by Itself? “No!” Says US Department of Commerce

In a recent letter, the US Department of Commerce NTIA strongly denied being engaged in discussions about a “root zone transition” from VeriSign to ICANN. The community, ICANN President Strategic Committee (PSC), and perhaps ICANN and IANA staff are suddenly informed that no transition of root zone management is going to occur.

What happened? With the touted ICANN transparency and accountability principles, why such a shift in (perceived) ICANN strategic directions coming from its overseeing government department?

First, USG Commerce is right—and we should have noticed! The expectation that a root management transition might occur was only based on a “root transition agreement” which you will not see on the NTIA web site. Anyhow, at its face value, this (now) elusive agreement ever had very little substance—it’s basically an agreement to agree on a future roadmap for a transition to ICANN of root management functions. Besides timing, there are no significant differences between an agreement to agree that is not in force (as we are reminded) and one that triggers inconclusive discussions (as one could easily predict). So, USG Commerce is also helpful by bringing definiteness in ICANN strategic options.

Facts from the Record

Here is a short historic trace of this agreement that does not exists but could have led to inconclusive discussions (it’s the Internet, it’s ICANN, so it can’t be simple!).

The updated VeriSign litigation settlement documents posted on the ICANN web site on January, 29th, 2006, does contain this root transition agreement (RTA). It is thus an integral part of what the ICANN board approved one month later.

The resulting .com registry contract is dated March 1st, 2006, and is currently posted on the ICANN web site without the RTA. There are two sources of ambiguity in this public document availability: 1) as a root management issue, the RTA could have been omitted as a web site editorial decision and still be in force as a litigation settlement agreement, and 2) the web page update date is one month after USG Commerce approved the VeriSign settlement.

Indeed, on November 29, 2006, USG Commerce approved the new contract between VeriSign and ICANN that settled the litigation. This approval left out the RTA, and this is where everyone interested should have noticed! With a bit of irony, this is fully compliant to Internet governance transparency principles: public disclosure is achieved by the posting of a revised document on a permanent link, no matter how challenging it might be to grasp the relevant matters out of minute editorial changes.

I guess some papers were actually signed by ICANN’s CEO and VeriSign representatives around March 1st, 2006, including the RTA, but the later was obviously not approved by USG Commerce. Thus, it would be after November, 29, 2006 that (part of?) ICANN, IANA, and the community was ill-informed about DNS root management strategic options.

Now What?

Some projects within ICANN and IANA may require adjustment of priorities and resource allocation, e.g. preparation work for DNSSEC signature of the root zone file. As hinted above, this outcome is no different from inconclusive discussions that an in-force RTA could have initiated.

On a more global perspective, each time the USG reaffirms its commitment to Internet critical resources through IANA oversight, the veil over the international stakeholder influence darkens. In the case of root zone management, this insidiously brings legitimacy to alternate root projects. The growing expectations for a signed root in a known time frame could make the issue more pressing.

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