Big change goes largely unnoticed

It didn't make the headlines. But, on 1 October, stewardship of the IANA functions was transferred from the US government to a multistakeholder system. SIDN's CEO Roelof Meijer and Legal and Policy Advisor Maarten Simon made dozens of conference calls, went through thousands of e-mails and reports, and invested hundreds of hours to help smooth the passage of this important change in the way the internet is governed.

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Unsustainable situation 

IANA has three distinct functions, which have an important bearing on the technical infrastructure of the internet. Two of them – (administrative) management of the DNS root and IP address allocation – are of particular significance. The functions in question have traditionally been performed by ICANN. Until 1 October, ICANN did so under a contract with the US government. The American state was the contract principal and theoretically had the authority to dictate who should perform the IANA functions, and how. The US government's stewardship role was a product of the internet's historical development, and its appropriateness in the modern world had been questioned for some time. "In 2006 and 2008, the US government held consultations, in the context of which I was one of those who urged change," recalls Roelof Meijer. "Governments around the world were taking more and more interest in the internet. And a lot of people – particularly non-western countries, such as China and India – were uncomfortable about the US having such a central role. Besides, when ICANN was set up in 1998, the US had promised that its stewardship of the IANA functions would only be temporarily. It was important that that promise was kept."

US influence

So, why were other countries so anxious to see change? After all, despite the contractual situation, the US government had never actually interfered with the IANA functions. The trouble was that the US did have the power to end its contract with ICANN and give responsibility for the IANA functions to another body. That meant that America could exert influence over ICANN if it chose to. And, according to Maarten Simon, it certainly did so. "In the period around the introduction of the new gTLDs, the IANA functions were suddenly put out to tender. Unsurprisingly, ICANN was the only suitable organisation to bid. Nevertheless, ICANN's contract was renewed only after a second round of tenders. The clear intention was to send a political signal and to enforce a number of new conditions. The trigger may have been the debate about introduction of the xxx domain. There was a lot of opposition in the US to the creation of such an 'immoral' domain."

First push for multistakeholder stewardship

Edward Snowden's disclosures raised the profile of the IANA stewardship question. "ICANN and the United States came under increasing pressure to implement changes, and confidence US stewardship was damaged," explains Roelof Meijer. "In October 2013, a number of organisations that play important roles in maintaining the infrastructure of the internet held a meeting in Montevideo. At the conclusion, they issued a joint statement calling for, amongst other things, the transfer of IANA stewardship to a multistakeholder body." It is worth stating that, back then, multistakeholder stewardship wasn't the only option on the table. Nearly all western countries, companies and NGOs favoured the multistakeholder model, but some countries wanted a multilateral model, where ICANN policy was defined by an intergovernmental body, e.g. by making ICANN part of the UN.

NETmundial Conference

In May 2014, the internet world gathered in Sao Paulo to discuss the issue. As the registry for one of the biggest country-code domains anywhere, SIDN was of course represented at the NETmundial Conference, as the gathering became known. Roelof and Maarten were there along with various other people from the Netherlands, including former minister Uri Rosenthal representing the Dutch government. Roelof Meijer remembers NETmundial as a seminal occasion. "The meeting was organised according to multistakeholder principles. All stakeholders had equal opportunity to speak. So someone from a small lobby group was given as much time to address the meeting as the Chinese government representative. I really had the feeling that history was being made. We were discussing a fundamental change in the internet's governance structure, and the governments accepted that, while they had an important role, they were not unique stakeholders. It was a fantastic opportunity to assure the success of the internet."

Stewardship by all stakeholders

"NETmundial's outcome was exactly what we hoped for," continues Roelof Meijer. "Collective backing was given to the idea of internet governance based on the multistakeholder model. China, India and others weren't keen to involve private companies and NGOs in the discussion. But even they supported the statement issued at the conclusion." Before the conference, the US government had already announced that it favoured the transfer of stewardship to the multistakeholder internet community. ICANN was accordingly asked to devise a transfer plan in consultation with the global internet community. However, it wasn't until long after NETmundial that a plan was forthcoming. "Quite simply, the ICANN organisation wasn't ready to handle such a task. Before the IANA functions could be transferred to ICANN, ICANN had to be made transparent and accountable. A working group was set up to oversee the necessary changes, and I had the privilege of representing the country-code domains in that working group."

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Working groups

Maarten Simon also sat on one of the working groups tasked with mapping out the necessary changes. "I wasn't actually planning to get involved," he acknowledges, "but when I watched the first meeting of the working group considering one of the IANA functions, I got the impression that some people were pushing for the creation of a completely new structure. I felt that that was totally unnecessary, so I decided to offer my input after all." Roelof Meijer takes up the story: "In the final analysis, transition wasn't such a complicated undertaking. Previously, the US had the power to relieve ICANN of responsibility for the IANA functions; the threat of that sanction was used to keep ICANN in line. Our task was merely to define a mechanism for transferring that power to the international internet community. Nothing more. And, in the end, that's what was done. Stewardship is now the responsibility of an 'empowered community'. If the community doesn't like the way that ICANN is performing its role, the community ultimately has the authority to dismiss the ICANN Board. All internet stakeholders are represented in the empowered community."

Three-hour conference calls

The road to multistakeholder stewardship was long and far from smooth. "The community couldn't afford to get it wrong," Roelof Meijer points out. "If it had done, the multistakeholder model would have been discredited. It would also have resulted in IANA stewardship remaining with the US – a scenario that countries such as China and India simply weren't prepared to accept. Ultimately, it might even have led to fragmentation of the internet." The need to achieve consensus over the route to be followed didn't make the process any easier. "You could say that we achieved consensus by exhaustion," suggests Maarten Simon. "Working group conference calls often lasted three hours. In the later stages of the process, we would sometimes have several conferences in a single day. And, because the working group members were scattered all over the globe, they were at crazy times. There you'd be at your laptop, trying to discuss things with up to a hundred other people, maybe at 7am, maybe at 10pm, maybe even at one o'clock at night." Roelof Meijer fills in the picture: "Some people were working on the transition full time, whereas we also had a business to run. If you're devoting ten or fifteen hours a week to something, on top of your normal work, that's quite an undertaking."

Champagne

All the working groups finally completed their plans in March of this year, just before ICANN's meeting in Marrakesh. On the face of it, that was in plenty of time: ICANN's contract with the US government was due to expire at the start of October. However, the process remained vulnerable to derailment by various threats. There was the possibility of a legal challenge, for example, which fortunately didn't materialise. "The handover was scheduled for midnight on 1 October, Washington DC time, which is 6am Dutch time. I made sure I was up really early, following developments on Twitter. When six o'clock came and went without incident, I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I had a bottle of champagne ready to celebrate, but in the end I decided against opening it at that time of day."

Considerable influence

Maarten was pleased to see everything brought to a successful conclusion. "The process was a legal formality. It hasn't resulted in a change that anyone would notice. All the same, it was very important to get stewardship transferred. SIDN had considerable influence on the process, and the outcome is broadly what we were seeking. You could say that we fixed something before it could break." Roelof Meijer sees the change as an opportunity. "The way is now open to developing better ICANN policies," he says. "It's an important milestone in the history of internet governance."

Additional reading

Want to learn more about this topic? Check out the related blog posts that Maarten and Roelof have written in the last couple of years:

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