by Milton Mueller on Sat 10 Mar 2012 10:19 PM EST

In a deliberately precipitous move, the U.S. Commerce Department has announced that no acceptable bid for the IANA contract was received and that they are withdrawing the Request for Proposals. Ironically, the announcement that ICANN was not qualified to operate the IANA also contained a notice that they had extended ICANN’s existing IANA contract for another 6 months.

The implications of this move are manifold, and all of them seem to be bad. Bad for the independence and integrity of ICANN’s policy making process, bad for multistakeholder governance, crippling to the new TLD application process, bad for freedom of expression, bad for business opportunity and economic recovery, bad for predictable and stable process. It looks very much as if the US government is still attempting to retroactively rewrite ICANN’s new top level domain policy by manipulating the IANA contract, using the possible award of the contract as a carrot and this denial as a stick. ICANN is being bludgeoned with the largest possible stick to abandon key elements of its hard-fought, multistakeholder based policy to add new top level domains: a threat to move the IANA contract to someone else.

But to whom? This threat is not credible if it cannot be used. The U.S. Commerce Department needs to understand that it is toying with the complete destruction of ICANN as a governance institution. Its aggressive use of unilateral state power to change community-developed policy makes its lip service to multistakeholderism and its warnings against UN or ITU-based inter-governmentalism ring hollow.

We need to gather more evidence about what exactly the Commerce Department was dissatisfied with. Kevin Murphy, in the Domain Incite blog, hypothesizes that it was ICANN’s unwillingness to yield to the U.S. government’s demand – given to them by the trademark lobby and GAC – that ICANN perform a “public interest” test on new TLDs. The problems with such a proposal were noted by many commenters in the IANA contracting public comment period, and was especially unpopular with the technical community. IGP comments explain why this is such a bad idea.

Murphy’s theory is, at this stage, just that – a theory. We consider it to be both plausible, and a worst-case scenario. We are at the ICANN meeting and intend to gather more information about this. Our first impression, however, is that the U.S. government has completely lost perspective on the larger issues, and is pursuing some very short term political gains that will have some very long-lasting and potentially disastrous costs.

1 thought on “NTIA plays chicken with the IANA contract

  1. Re: NTIA plays chicken with the IANA contract
    “…independence and integrity of ICANN’s policy making process”

    Good laugh!

    “The U.S. Commerce Department needs to understand that it is toying with the complete destruction of ICANN as a governance institution.”

    So what? What in the history of ICANN proves that governance by cartell is a useful concept?

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