The U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration will end its formal relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers in late 2015, with ICANN developing a new global governance model, the agency said Friday.
The NTIA plans to let its contract with ICANN to operate key domain-name functions expire in September 2015, while requiring the organization to develop a new global Internet governance model, NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling said during a press conference.
ICANN has faced growing criticism in recent years about the influence of the U.S. government on its operations, but Strickling and ICANN CEO and President Fadi Chehadé said the decision to end the formal relationship was driven instead by a longtime understanding that the partnership would be temporary. ICANN's contract with the NTIA to operate the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions dates back to 1999.
The NTIA also believed the time was right for the change because of ICANN's maturity and the transparent decision-making process that has developed there, an NTIA official said.
As a condition of the change, the transition away from the NTIA contract "must have broad community support" from Internet users, governments and companies, Strickling said. The new governance model must "maintain the security, stability and resiliency of the Internet Domain Name System," he added.
The new governance model must also maintain the openness of the Internet, Strickling said. The NTIA will not support a governance model that puts control in the hands of governments only, he added. "I want to make clear that we will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or intergovernmental solution," he said.
The global Internet community will be included "in full" in the transition process, Chehadé said. He encouraged civil society, Internet groups and other organizations to be involved in the transition and in the new governance model. Debate on the transition will begin during ICANN's meeting in Singapore March 23 to 27, he said.
If ICANN meets the NTIA's conditions to create a new governance model, the IANA contract will "gracefully sunset," Chehadé said during a press conference. Friday's announcement shows the NTIA is "trusting ICANN" to engage the global Internet community in a new governance model, he said.
"This is historic, because it marks a point of maturity in ICANN, the ICANN community and the global Internet community," he said. "The decision of the United States government to do this at this point is truly a triumph of the multistakeholder model."
U.S. trade group NetChoice questioned the decision. The announcement comes after a series of revelations about U.S. National Security Agency surveillance programs across the Internet, coming from leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
"I hope it's not just a frightened reaction to the Snowden revelations, which have nothing to do with the Internet Domain Name System," NetChoice executive director Steve DelBianco said by email. "Maybe the administration wants to rack up political points for upcoming [Internet governance] meetings. I'm afraid those points won't be worth what this move may cost."
The end of the contract means the NTIA will not be able to continue to push ICANN to improve its services, as it has in recent years, DelBianco said. "The IANA contract is the only real check on ICANN's power," he added. "While we all want a strong and independent ICANN, it makes no sense to release the organization from IANA's contractual leverage before it creates real and permanent accountability mechanisms."
In addition, ICANN could now "escape its legal presence in the US, despite having many contracts that are adjudicated under U.S. law," he said.
U.S. Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, called the announcement the "next phase" of a longtime commitment the U.S. government has made toward a global governance model.
"The Internet was invented and developed in the U.S., and it has completely transformed the way people communicate and do business in every corner of the world," he said in a statement. Since ICANN's creation in 1998, "the U.S. has been committed to transitioning management of the Internet's domain name system to an independent entity that reflects the broad diversity of the global Internet community."
Leaders of several Internet technical organizations, including the Internet Society, the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium, praised the move.
"Our organizations are committed to open and transparent multistakeholder processes," they said in a joint statement. "We are also committed to further strengthening our processes and agreements related to the IANA functions, and to building on the existing organizations and their roles. The Internet technical community is strong enough to continue its role, while assuming the stewardship function as it transitions from the U.S. government."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.