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The IANA Transition Is Not Perfect, But Congress Should Approve It Anyway

In recent months, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has become the face of opposition to the U.S. government relinquishing its historic oversight of key technical functions of the Internet. This opposition will be on display today, as he holds a hearing to help Congress better understand the implications of such action. In some ways, Sen. Cruz’s opposition is justified—as ITIF has long argued, U.S. oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has been a crucial factor in its stability, and a transition away from U.S. oversight will create unique risks and challenges for Internet governance. But Sen. Cruz is still wrong to oppose the transition. Undoubtedly, the transition proposal is imperfect, but it has been vetted and approved by the global multistakeholder community. Therefore, any effort by the U.S. government to delay or derail the transition now would undermine the consensus developed by civil society and embolden other countries to intervene in the domain name system.

To understand today’s debate, a bit of historical perspective is necessary. In 1998, the Clinton administration announced plans to transition the management of the domain name system to the private sector. Since then, ICANN, a nonprofit organization based in California, has been responsible for managing core technical functions on the Internet, commonly referred to as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions, with oversight provided by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the U.S. Department of Commerce. In 2014, the Obama administration announced that it intended to relinquish its oversight of ICANN and called on the global Internet community to bring forward a proposal to execute on this vision. The community responded with vigor, and this past August the NTIA announced that it had approved the transition proposal.

But not everyone is pleased with the proposal. First, for all of the attention that the proposal has received, it is still untested. We simply do not know whether or what types of unforeseen consequences may result. Second, the proposal has done little to limit ICANN’s future growth. As ITIF has testified, without U.S. oversight, ICANN could grow into the world’s largest unregulated monopoly. Third, NTIA’s approval of the transition seems to violate the express orders of Congress, which added appropriations riders—twice—prohibiting NTIA from using appropriated funds to terminate its contract with ICANN.

Yet, even with all of these grievances, the time has come to allow the transition to occur. The global multistakeholder community has spent the past two years developing the current proposal to meet the NTIA’s request for a plan that would preserve the Internet’s stability, security, and openness, and it has largely met these goals. To ensure that governance authority ultimately rests with the global multistakeholder community, and not merely special interests or the ICANN board, groups like ITIF have steadfastly insisted on key accountability reforms, and these changes have now been mostly implemented. Sending the proposal back for additional revisions would be unlikely to yield substantial changes. Moreover, U.S. government interference at this point would undermine global consensus and reduce confidence in the multistakeholder model at a time when these attributes are needed most. If anything, threatening the legitimacy of the multistakeholder model will strengthen the hand of those nations that wish to gain greater control over the Internet—the main concern of those still opposing the transition—since they will be able to argue that the U.S. government still holds undue influence over ICANN, better justifying their own interventions.

The IANA transition marks a key “constitutional moment” for Internet governance, and the United States should ensure it is on the right side of history. Therefore, Congress should approve this proposal—either explicitly through a resolution or tacitly through inaction on additional appropriations riders—to validate the legitimacy of the multistakeholder process and give ICANN the best possible start as it moves forward in these uncharted waters.

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