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The US Department of Commerce, the DNS Root, and ICANN

The recent announcement in eWeek titled “Feds Won’t Let Go of Internet DNS” (slashdotted here) has some major internet policy implications. The short, careful wording appears to be more of a threat to ICANN than a power grab. In short, the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that it was not going to stop overseeing ICANN’s changes to the DNS root.

The statement from NTIA is only four paragraphs long; they are quoted here interspersed with commentary. (Note to eWeek and everyone who copies their articles: please put links to the government statements you are paraphrasing. None of the top-listed articles from Google News has the above link to the NTIA statement, which was trivial to find from looking at the front page of the NTIA web site. This is the web, folks…)

The United States Government intends to preserve the security and stability of the Internet’s Domain Name and Addressing System (DNS). Given the Internet’s importance to the world’s economy, it is essential that the underlying DNS of the Internet remain stable and secure. As such, the United States is committed to taking no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.”

Nice first sentence. Of course, they have done next to nothing to support DNSSEC or other proposal for securing the DNS, but it sounds reassuring. The last sentence shows that the Bush administration shares the Clinton administration’s lack of understanding of how the internet should evolve. ...and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file. Having a US bureaucratic body signing off on international naming is not going to help the world economy. Of course, the clumsy and capricious way that the ICANN board allows in new gTLDs and the contracts for the current gTLDs doesn’t help either, but their actions are paving their own special road to the ITU.

Governments have legitimate interest in the management of their country code top level domains (ccTLD). The United States recognizes that governments have legitimate public policy and sovereignty concerns with respect to the management of their ccTLD. As such, the United States is committed to working with the international community to address these concerns, bearing in mind the fundamental need to ensure stability and security of the Internet’s DNS.”

Here is where ICANN should start noticing that the document isn’t particularly supportive of the time and money spent over the past eight years. The wording here smells a lot like a strong foray into “governments should be overseeing ICANN”. Cue the ITU theme music.

ICANN is the appropriate technical manager of the Internet DNS. The United States continues to support the ongoing work of ICANN as the technical manager of the DNS and related technical operations and recognizes the progress it has made to date. The United States will continue to provide oversight so that ICANN maintains its focus and meets its core technical mission.”

Note the use of the word “technical” right there in the first sentence. And in the second, twice. Oh, it’s there in the third sentence, too. Every mention of ICANN makes it darn clear that NTIA likes what they are doing technically. All the policy decisions, which happen to suck up 90% of ICANN’s human resources (both staff and participants), get the big “no support” vote from the NTIA. At least that matches the vote of most ICANN participants and watchers.

Dialogue related to Internet governance should continue in relevant multiple fora. Given the breadth of topics potentially encompassed under the rubric of Internet governance there is no one venue to appropriately address the subject in its entirety. While the United States recognizes that the current Internet system is working, we encourage an ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders around the world in the various fora as a way to facilitate discussion and to advance our shared interest in the ongoing robustness and dynamism of the Internet. In these fora, the United States will continue to support market-based approaches and private sector leadership in Internet development broadly.”

Cute use of the word “multiple” and, a few sentences later, “various”. As in “not just in ICANN’s own processes where they don’t listen to the people they invite”, but (most likely), “WSIS”.

Dealing with change - Separately, it is a bit disturbing that the NTIA conflated two very different things in the root: additions and changes. Additions are important because they mint a new monopoly over a name. The monopoly of an addition might be given to the current government of a country, or to some corporation/organization for a new TLD that is not supposed to look like a country abbreviation.

After the monopoly is granted (many of which go back over 20 years), the monopoly holder should be able to change the nameserver records for their name whenever they feel like it. No one (ICANN nor their overlords) should disallow any change to the nameserver records unless the requested change is clearly technically broken. ICANN tried to step in here many years ago in a ham-fisted fashion and they lost nearly all of their support from the countries. Most people forget how few of the world’s governments have actually signed agreements with ICANN: fewer than 5%. That is a direct outgrowth of ICANN trying to force their will on the technical administrators of the ccTLDs.

Where it has always been trickier is in the WHOIS database associated with the ccTLDs in the root. That data represents who can, among other things, change the nameserver records for each TLD. It was what Jon Postel, the person who managed the root before ICANN got started, was most concerned with. In stable countries, it is no problem; in unstable countries, it is a big problem. And it is even more of a problem is the instability in that country is caused by, fostered, or even supported by, the entity to whom ICANN is beholden, whether that is the US or the UN.

I suspect that most countries in the world would strongly prefer the UN to have the role of overseer of the monopolies because they trust the UN more than they trust the US in times of instability. So far, the US government has not abused its power over ICANN and the root by, say, changing the nameserver records for countries with whom the US has been at war. But it could.

One reading of the NTIA announcement is “the US intends to never release our control on the root”. Another is “the US hasn’t been paying much attention to this, so we’ll keep the status quo”. Another is “the US intends to release our control on the root to someone other than ICANN”. I suspect most countries, and many folks in the technical community, prefer the third, even if it means attaching the policy for the DNS root to the ITU’s horrid bureaucracy.

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fnord  –  Jul 5, 2005 7:03 AM

While I otherwise agree with the sentiments in the article, there is just no way that the USG did this so that they can at some point in the future release control of the root to someone other than ICANN, unless perhaps to some subsequent USG created body, and I doubt even then. They already control ICANN as much as they need to. If they allow ICANN to go fully private that still wouldn’t change much.

Whether it is Iraq’s WMD or oil for food (never mind that US interests made a bundle off that), the USG and what I find a surprising amount of the US population do not like or trust the UN. Pigs will fly before the USG will voluntarily give the ITU anything important unless they can control it even more than they control ICANN, and that’s not going to happen.

I haven’t seen the theory floated, but I do toy with the idea that ICANN’s OK’ing of .xxx was just too much for some largely conservative strains in the USG, and this is part of the result. I don’t think they’ve signed off on .xxx yet, is it beyond the realm of possibility that they’d play the security and stability card? As in, international terrorism is involved in organized crime, organized crime is involved in online prOn, ergo… -g

John Palmer  –  Jul 31, 2005 1:54 PM

Looks like Tiscali, a major ISP in Europe will be using Public-Root rather than ICANN starting in September. See their press release:


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