NTIA hearing hints little change in DoC position

Over 100 people attended yesterday's public hearing (view the archived webcast) as part of the ongoing NTIA notice of inquiry on the continued privatization of the DNS. Commerce Dept. official John Kneuer, the acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communication and Information, said the NOI had generated nearly 700 public comments, but did not mention that the vast majority of them were critical of the unilateral oversight exercised by the USG and ICANN's continued problems with lack of transparency, accountability and representation. Contrary to certain inaccurate reports, no major changes or revelations occurred at this meeting; the Commerce Department attempted to solicit the views of certain stakeholders and revealed little about its own views. How NTIA will use the comments remains to be seen, but one experienced former government official said that “NTIA how has all the excuses it needs to change essentially nothing.”

The single moment of revelation occured when Emily Taylor of Nominet UK asked in her presentation, “Is the USG even contemplating a transition? The 2005 DNS principles seemed to say that there wouldn't be one.” During the Q&A period of the first session, IGP's Milton Mueller pressed Kneuer to answer Taylor's question, pointing out the obvious tension between the notion of a privatized DNS coordination and the residual authority over root zone file modifications held by the NTIA. Kneuer, a bit flustered, replied that the US will not retain all of its “historic roles” and that they have “a longstanding policy to complete this transition.” But, he added, the US will take no actions that will call into question the security and stability of the Internet, and he specifically noted that they will retain USG's supervision of root zone file changes made by the IANA, which he believes is distinct from the other functions supervised by the MoU. In short, Kneuer basically restated the 2005 DNS principles and showed that there is absolutely no movement in the US position when it comes to unilateral oversight.

Only the panelists from the Internet technical community strongly supported letting ICANN go free of the MoU and completing the transition in September 2006. Lynn St. Amour, the Internet Society's executive director, said that we should “move to a minimal, transitional MoU in which USG plays only a backstop role in case of a major organizational failure.” The MoU “as currently constructed is no longer necessary or appropriate,” she said. Parallelling language outlined by IGP, Ray Plzak of ARIN said that “no single govt should have a special role in management of Internet resources” and said that the MoU should not be extended. Suzanne Woolf of ISC tacitly agreed, asking the USG to “move away from checklists and day to day supervision.”

Business representatives on the other hand were not willing to see ICANN cut loose. Major registrar GoDaddy Group, while supporting a continued transition to a private ICANN, said that it was premature to end the MoU. In an obvious reference to the VeriSign settlement, Tim Ruiz said that confidence in ICANN had been shaken recently and asked that three principles be added to an extended MoU: openness, transparency & accountability. Michael Heltzer, the International Trademark Association representative, complained about weighted voting in the GNSO and the lack of accurate Whois data. Clearly the trademark interests, who are losing ground in many ICANN battles, want the friendly US Commerce Department to remain in charge. David Fares of the USCIB, though noting the diversity of business opinion, said that “substantial progress has been made” by ICANN but stopped well short of calling for its release from the MoU. The Washington public interest group CDT, too, did not feel comfortable freeing ICANN from the MoU “without knowing what structures would need to be in place to maintain a fully privatized, independent ICANN.” Some wondered why the group, often accused of being too cozy with inside the beltway interests, hasn't invested more in formulating and advocating such proposals.

The comments of foreign spokespersons, though reduced to a largely token role by the NTIA's panel selections, shone through for their coherence and clarity. Emily Taylor of Nominet UK focused on the big issues: “Are we asking the right questions? What oversight role is appropriate for the root, if any? Who is best placed to do it?” She then rattled the chains of her hosts a bit by praising Point 1 of the proposal circulated by Becky Burr and Marilyn Cade, which asks the US to “clearly articulate the purpose of US authority over the root.” The only other foreign representative, Bill Graham of Industry Canada, said that certain things need to improve before full privatization. Graham noted pointedly that there is pressure on ICANN to do things it was not designed to do. He urged ICANN to take a very narrow view of what its role is, especially in areas of policy. He asked for clarification of what “internationalization” means and reiterated Taylor's call for the US to open up the process by which it exercises its authority over the root. ICANN, he concluded, is a quasi-judicial body and needs to behave that way. Formal processes need to be adopted with adequate notice, time frames and posting of written documents. Decisions must be explained in written documents and must acknowledge and summarize the positions put forward by commenting parties. While noting that the GAC role is important, the letter “A” in the acronym is vitally important. He called on participants to make sure governments really understand the role of the GAC, that it is not a negotiating body that they are left out of.

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