Last Friday’s Department of Commerce announcement means that the process of globalizing the governance of the DNS root zone has officially begun. Almost immediately, ICANN began spinning the NTIA announcement to re-scope what is actually up for debate. Not surprisingly, the spin goes in a direction calculated to subtly strengthen ICANN’s position.

The Department specifically tasked ICANN to convene stakeholders to “develop a proposal to transition the current authorization role played by NTIA.” The NTIA’s authorization role is a rather small, albeit geopolitically sensitive, component of root zone governance.  Importantly, the NTIA’s FAQ clearly delineates between the IANA functions (currently performed by ICANN) and the root zone maintenance role (currently performed by Verisign), saying that while they are “inextricably intertwined”, any modification of the latter “would require that NTIA coordinate a related and parallel transition in these [Verisign’s] responsibilities.” Contrast this to how ICANN framed its assigned task. ICANN issued a document describing “the consultation process that will be used to develop the mechanism for stewardship transition with respect to the IANA Functions and related root zone management.” (emphasis added)

This should raise a red flag for everyone concerned. It shows that an over-eager ICANN is not as concerned as it should be with maintaining careful checks and balances in root zone governance arrangements. A criteria of any successful proposal will be maintaining structural separation of the policy making role currently performed by ICANN, and the technical and clerical operational role performed by IANA and Verisign.

It is also critical to note that structural separation goes beyond functional separation. ICANN has responded to calls for structural separation by claiming that it already has separated the IANA and ICANN roles in its internal organization. And it is true that ICANN is now contractually obligated to perform the IANA functions (specifically changes to the DNS root zone) in a way that conforms to standards in Section C of its contract with the Department.  But once that contract is terminated, what guarantees that separation will continue to exist?  Absent the U.S. government, the only way to ensure clear, effective separation of policy and implementation is to place the operational aspects of root zone governance with external parties, not with ICANN.

Completely separating root zone file modification from policy-making is Principle #1 in our proposal to globalize IANA, which has gained strong support from technical and governance experts, among others.  As we note, implementation of root zone changes authorized by policy should not be a way for governments (or anyone else) to alter, override or block policy decisions made by the multi-stakeholder process.  Nor should operational control of the root zone be used as leverage for non-DNS related foreign policy or economic objectives. This implies that the IANA functions should be structurally separated from ICANN.