US has traditionally overseen IANA functions
Performance of the so-called 'IANA functions' has traditionally been under US supervision. Since ICANN was founded, it has been responsible for performing the IANA functions – administration of the root and other tasks such as the allocation of IP addresses – under a contract with the US government.
Changes to the root zone require US approval
Every change to the root of the domain name system - the central reference source, which points to all top-level domains (TLDs), including .nl, .com and .eu – currently has to be rubber stamped by the US Department of Commerce. That applies whether the change in question involves a US-based registry such as VeriSign getting the entry for .com updated, or involves SIDN getting something changed for.nl. Naturally China, to name but one, has been unhappy about US approval being needed for a root change to its own country-code domain. The fact that the US authorities have never apparently abused their power and that all TLD registries' requests have been approved without question has not prevented unease concerning the principle.
ICANN decides, IANA implements
Ultimately, the IANA functions are also purely technical/administrative. IANA does not decide who should administer which TLD. Responsibility for such decisions lies with ICANN, a multistakeholder organisation, which also defines the rules governing generic top-level domains (gTLDs). IANA's role is merely to implement decisions made by ICANN.
Control of the domain name system
Although whoever controls the IANA functions theoretically has enormous power over the way that the domain name system works, the situation has not actually yielded any problems so far. Nevertheless, in view of the potential for issues to arise, it is very important that future supervision of the IANA functions' performance is organised in a way that ensures that the functions continue to be performed on a purely technical/administrative basis. One would expect the US government to recognise that fact and to take steps to assure future impartiality before the handover of power.
No master plan
It is therefore surprising that the US's formal announcement of its intention to hand over its IANA role to a third party in 2015 contained no concrete proposal regarding a future governance model. Rather, the announcement merely indicated that ICANN should devise a new model. Apparently, therefore, there is no master plan for future governance. Or is there?
Key discussion topic for the 49th ICANN Meeting
This week, the 49th ICANN Meeting takes place in Singapore. The globalisation of the IANA functions will be one of the main subjects on the agenda. And we may discover whether all options really are up for discussion. The question is: is that actually desirable, and is there in fact a good alternative? Next week we shall learn more.